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To keep troops in Syria, US leaders are lying like in Afghanistan
While claiming to oppose "endless military deployments" abroad, the Biden administration is keeping hundreds of US troops in Syria and deceiving the public like its predecessors in Afghanistan.
One day after the last US forces left the Kabul airport, President Joe Biden declared that he is "ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries."
But while bucking the Pentagon and DC foreign policy establishment in withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Biden administration has confirmed that it’s keeping hundreds of troops in Syria to occupy the oil-rich northeast – about one-third of the country. And just like predecessors who misled the public about US progress in Afghanistan, Biden is overseeing a similar deception that hides both the reality of US operations on Syrian territory and the actual motives for keeping troops there indefinitely.
The administration's formal pledge to continue occupying Syria was quietly disclosed during the last days of the 20-year US military campaign in Afghanistan. "The Biden administration is committed to retaining US military presence in northeast Syria," Dana Stroul, the Pentagon's top policy official for the Middle East, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on August 10th.
Echoing the official rationale, Stroul claimed that the US remains in Syria "because ISIS is not defeated," and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) cannot fight the terror group "without our support, training, and advice."
The US government's claim to be occupying Syria in order to fight ISIS is undercut by a series of low-profile admissions concealed from a wide audience. In overlooked statements and briefings, US officials have disclosed that American forces are barely doing any fighting against ISIS in Syria, and for good reason: as is also quietly acknowledged, fighting ISIS is not the actual reason why they’re there.
In reality, after a decade-long, multi-billion-dollar CIA dirty war that failed to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the US is using its soldiers -- along with crippling sanctions -- to keep Syria divided, impoverished, and unable to rebuild.
While admin claims to fight ISIS, Pentagon admits that it's not
In its latest quarterly assessment of the US mission against ISIS in Syria, the Pentagon's Lead Inspector General (Lead IG) depicts a battlefield where the US is effectively idle. In practice, it is the Syrian government and its allies that are conducting the vast majority of anti-ISIS operations and bear the brunt of the militant group's violence. The IG report also portrays ISIS as largely contained, with little prospect of expanding beyond its isolated desert hideouts.
ISIS attacks on US and allied Kurdish forces in Syria, the Lead IG says, have been "infrequent, and generally ineffective," thereby having a "minimal impact" on the American-led mission. ISIS "has not carried out any deliberate attacks, successful or otherwise, against U.S or Coalition forces in Syria since January 2019" – nearly three years ago.
Whereas ISIS "likely has reduced the priority of attacking U.S. or other Coalition forces," the Lead IG report states, the group is "primarily focused on [Syrian government] regime forces and their allies," namely Russia and Iran. For ISIS, the "Syrian regime forces and their backers" are "more accessible targets" – not surprisingly, given that these non-US "targets" are actually doing the anti-ISIS fighting.
As ISIS avoids attacks on American forces, the US appears to be reciprocating. According to the IG report, the US army carried out just 12 airstrikes against ISIS in Syria between January and June. By contrast, the Russian army alone "has conducted hundreds of airstrikes in support of Syrian regime operations in the Syrian desert" against ISIS during that same period. "Russia conducted these operations in response to repeated ISIS attacks targeting regime and militia outposts, oil convoys, and military personnel in transit," the report states.
While US warplanes barely leave the ground to bomb ISIS targets, US ground forces are completely dormant. The US fleet of Bradley Fighting Vehicles in Kurdish-controlled areas was "not involved in any engagements with other forces during the quarter," the report notes.
This tracks with what US officials have quietly acknowledged to reporters. "In reality," Politico reports, citing a Pentagon source, "no American troops have accompanied local forces on combat patrols for over a year in either Iraq or Syria."
Despite the lack of active anti-ISIS combat today, US officials have also claimed that American forces are in Syria to prevent a future ISIS resurgence. "There are still ISIS fighters in the region and unless pressure is maintained . . . then there’s a very real possibility that conditions could be set for a reemergence of ISIS," General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in late 2019.
But the IG report downplays this prospect. US Central Command, the report states, has "identified several ways in which the desert environment limits the capacity of ISIS to grow or strengthen its insurgency there," including decreased capacity to collect revenue and territory confined mostly to "caves and abandoned structures." Ultimately, "ISIS remains unable to capitalize on its destabilizing activities" in the desert area and will not be able to "sustain a high operational tempo, or expand the scope, complexity, or lethality of its operations."
The US government's lackluster approach to ISIS is not new. For years, the Syrian government and its Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese Hezbollah allies have shouldered the fight against ISIS in Syria, all while US leaders take public credit for the group's losses. A 2017 study by the influential IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre found that the "Islamic State fought Syrian government forces more than any other opponent" over a one-year period. "It is an inconvenient reality," a senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit observed, "that any US action taken to weaken the Syrian government will inadvertently benefit the Islamic State and other jihadist groups."
While the US has helped defeat ISIS in Syria, most notably in Kobane and Raqqa, it has also tacitly supported the group's advance. Speaking privately to Syrian opposition activists in 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that the US tried to leverage ISIS' takeover of Syrian territory to impose regime change on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "Daesh was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth," Kerry explained. "And we know that this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, that Assad would then negotiate" his way out of power.
The threat of an ISIS takeover, Kerry added, is "why Russia went in" to Syria in 2015, "because they didn’t want a Daesh government." This apparent Russian aim stands in contrast to the US, which — if Kerry is to be believed — was presumably happy to “manage” the risk of "a Daesh government" if it meant opening an opportunity to oust the Assad-led government.
Although US troops are barely fighting ISIS now, that does not mean that they are out of harm's way. In fact, US forces in Syria have come under fire as a direct result of US military strikes on Iranian and Iraqi-allied militias there. When Biden "ordered airstrikes on militia groups here in late June," the Washington Post recently noted, that ended up "sparking a fresh cycle of reciprocal violence, with militiamen firing at a facility housing U.S. troops and American forces responding with artillery fire."
The US military occupation has also come under protest from the local population subjected to its rule. In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, residents protested last month after the US military reportedly arrested tribal fighters who have vigorously battled ISIS. Locking up seasoned veterans of the fight against ISIS is yet another odd battlefield operation for a US occupation that is supposedly there for the same cause.
In 2019, top Biden official admitted real reason for US occupation of Syria: "leverage"
While the US barely confronts ISIS in Syria, top officials across the spectrum have also conceded an obvious explanation for why that is: the US is not there to fight ISIS.
The most crude admission came from President Donald Trump in January 2020. After caving to Pentagon and State Department officials who opposed his calls for a withdrawal from Syria, Trump boasted to Fox News that he ordered US troops to stay in Syria "to take the oil. I took the oil. The only troops I have are taking the oil. They're protecting the oil. I took over the oil."
Although Trump’s comments unnerved the DC foreign policy elite, he was in fact expressing a bipartisan position. The rationale for Trump's order to "to take the oil" in Syria was best explained months earlier by Dana Stroul, the aforementioned senior official now running Biden's Middle Eastern policy at the Pentagon.
As Ben Norton of The Grayzone revealed, Stroul declared that the US occupation of Syria, along with the globe-spanning power of US sanctions, gave it "leverage" to continue its decade-long dirty war on the Syrian state. By depriving Syria of access to its own oil and wheat, while meanwhile preventing reconstruction in the rest of the country under government control, the US could continue to squeeze the Syrian population and pressure the Syrian government into submission.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in October 2019, Stroul -- then serving as co-chair of the US Congress-founded Syria Study Group – explained that "one-third of Syrian territory" is now "owned" by the US military. Dispensing with the official rationale, Stoul acknowledged that the ongoing US occupation is "not only about completing the anti-ISIS fight."
Instead, Stroul explained, occupying the "resource-rich", "economic powerhouse" region in Syria's northeast -- which contains the country's "hydrocarbons" and is its "agricultural powerhouse" as well -- gives the U.S. government "broader leverage" to influence "a political outcome in Syria" in line with US dictates.
In Stroul's telling, while military occupation means the US can "own" one-third of Syria's territory, its financial dominance can leave the rest of the country destroyed. The government-controlled areas where most Syrians live "is rubble," she explained. And through US control of "the international financial institutions and our cooperation with the Europeans" – i.e., sanctions and coercion – the US can "hold a line on preventing reconstruction aid and technical expertise from going back into Syria."
The result of the bipartisan Trump-Biden strategy in Syria is the further immiseration of a war-ravaged nation.
Unable to freely access its own fuel and wheat as the US military hoards Syria's agricultural and economic "powerhouse," Syria faces what the United Nations calls "staggering levels of impoverishment." The UN estimates that 13.4 million people inside Syria are in need of assistance, along with 5.5 million Syrian refugees in neighboring states. The World Food Programme reported earlier this year that a record 12.4 million Syrians – or close to 60 percent of the population - are now food insecure. The crisis in Syria led the Atlantic Council, a pro-NATO think tank, to recently acknowledge that "living conditions in Syria have deteriorated to the point of near-famine."
Meanwhile, US sanctions imposed under the bipartisan Caesar Act, have not only deliberately prevented Syria's reconstruction but also, in the unapologetic words of former Trump envoy James Jeffrey, "crushed the country’s economy." Equally unperturbed by imposing new misery on a suffering population – if not outright proud – another former senior Trump official for Syria policy, Andrew Tabler notes in the same elite journal that US sanctions on Syria "have exacerbated fuel and food shortages for everyday Syrians."
Doubling down on an endless dirty war
In affirming its commitment to indefinitely occupy Syria, the Biden administration is marching in lockstep with national security state bureaucrats who have spent the last decade targeting the country with one of the most expensive and catastrophic dirty wars in modern history.
Capitalizing on Arab Spring protests that erupted in 2011, the US and its partners in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, UK, France, and Israel spent tens of billions on weapons and fighters in a failed paramilitary campaign to oust President Bashar al-Assad and bleed his Hezbollah and Iranian allies.
The CIA operation that armed militias in Syria, codenamed Timber Sycamore, proved to be "one of the costliest covert action programs in the history of the C.I.A" (New York Times); with "a budget approaching $1 billion a year," accounting "for about $1 of every $15 in the CIA’s overall budget." US officials estimate that the CIA armed and trained nearly 10,000 insurgents, spending "roughly $100,000 per year for every anti-Assad rebel who has gone through the program." (Washington Post). One of the covert war’s early architects was Army general and then-CIA Director David Petraeus, who had presided over the disastrous US “surge” in Afghanistan.
Just as in Afghanistan, the massive cost of the dirty war effort in Syria was largely concealed from US taxpayers footing the bill. Also concealed was the primary beneficiary of US largesse: Salafi-jihadist death squads that dominated the anti-government insurgency. As Jake Sullivan, Biden's National Security Advisor, put it bluntly in a 2012 email to Hillary Clinton: "AQ [Al Qaeda] is on our side in Syria."
For Al Qaeda, fighting on the US “side” paid dividends. Since 2016, Al Qaeda has occupied the northern province of Idlib after capturing it "thanks in large part to suicide bombers and American anti-tank TOW missiles," Foreign Policy (cheerfully) reported at the time. The conquest of Idlib was later described by the New York Times as among the CIA's "periods of success," which is certainly the case for its new jihadi rulers. As another senior Biden official, Brett McGurk, observed in 2017, Idlib has become "Al-Qaeda's largest safe haven since 9/11."
Although Syria and its allies have largely defeated the foreign-backed sectarian insurgents in the rest of the country, the continued US military occupation and sanctions extends the dirty war through other means. If the US cannot overthrow Assad, it can still use its military and financial "leverage" to ensure that the country remains too poor and too fragmented to rebuild.
Along with national security state bureaucrats in Washington, the endless dirty war in Syria has a powerful ally in Tel Aviv. Just days before the US completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett personally urged Biden to keep US troops in Syria and Iraq. Likening Iran’s government to the last days of the Soviet Union, Bennett reportedly advocated “a death by a thousand cuts” strategy that keeps Iran bogged down and “back in the box.” According to Axios, the Israeli delegation left the Oval Office meeting feeling “optimistic” about “Biden's attitude on that front.”
To play its part, Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes against Syria, with the full backing of the US government and the silent help of the US media, which barely ever reports it. Israeli attacks help enforce the US government’s de-facto embargo. Since 2019, Israel has bombed at least a dozen Syria-bound Iranian ships carrying desperately needed fuel in defiance of US sanctions.
The fact that Biden is choosing, so far, to continue the same deliberate sadism against the Syrian people is at odds with his public disavowal of “endless military deployments” and “doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country.” And by concealing its realities from the US public, Biden is signaling that despite withdrawing from Afghanistan, he is willingly prolonging another costly and catastrophic deception in Syria.