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US Presence in Syria is Crucial for its Role in the Region

US Presence in Syria is Crucial for its Role in the Region

Saturday, 23 November, 2019 - 10:15
Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

For the last eight years, the situation in Syria has been repeatedly described as chaotic and complicated, but that chaos and complexity has worsened significantly in recent weeks. Following President Trump’s phone call with Turkish President Erdogan and Turkey’s subsequent incursion into northeast Syria, a fast and brutal race for territorial control and influence has followed. As American troops hurriedly withdrew from their positions, the Syrian Democratic Forces came under fire from Turkey, and as the SDF lost territory, Russia and the Syrian regime flew in to fill valuable vacuums. Despite two parallel ceasefire arrangements (one between Turkey and the United States and another between Turkey and Russia) drawing new lines on the Syrian map, fighting still continues, including between Turkish proxies and the Syrian Army.

As this situation played out, ISIS commanders and leaders could only have been watching with excitement. Having been territorially defeated only months earlier and weakened to its greatest point in many years, the sudden eruption of multiple fronts of inter-state, ethnic and sectarian conflict in northeastern Syria could not have been better designed by ISIS strategists themselves. The chaos newly at play and the likely intractable nature of the new conflict fronts provided invaluable opportunities for ISIS not only to survive, but to gradually begin rebuilding itself and to resurge its terrorist operations – in Syria and next-door in Iraq. In recent weeks, that is precisely what ISIS has done: accelerate their resurgence and enhance the scale, frequency and scope of their terrorist operations.

In recent weeks, President Trump has been convinced by his broader administration and Republican Party figures to reverse his directive to withdraw from Syria. Trump’s disinterest in Syria was reversed using the only means that might have appealed to his business biases: the existence of oil and gas resources in eastern Syria. He has repeatedly stated publicly that the United States is staying in Syria “for the oil” – “we have the oil,” he has said.

However, “oil” is not the reason undergirding America’s determination to maintain a military presence in Syria. In fact, although the SDF and affiliated tribes control approximately 75% of Syria’s oil resources, the oil infrastructure has been damaged and under-maintained and production capacity is far below pre-war levels. More importantly, the United States is energy dependent and has literally no use for poor, unrefined Syrian oil. Instead, we are in Syria to sustain a crucially important campaign against a still powerful ISIS, while working ‘by-with-and-through” our SDF partners to enhance our collective negotiating positions on broader issues of Syria policy.

This is not just an American interest – it should be a priority for all American allies, both in Europe and especially in the Middle East. ISIS remains a very real and credible terrorist threat, locally, regionally and globally. What ISIS is able to regenerate in the Levant will fuel what it proves capable of doing across the world. Beyond ISIS, the crisis in Syria shows no sign of abating – whether the chaos and conflicts in the northeast; an expanding insurgency in the south; a pending humanitarian catastrophe and terrorist challenges in the northwest; not to also mention Israeli-Iranian confrontations and the security implications that come from a destroyed country, crippled state, and virtually non-existent economy. Without a military presence in Syria, we do not control territory; and without controlling territory, we do not have a meaningful seat at any Syria-related negotiating table.

Given all of these factors, the United States has a clear interest in staying in Syria and for now, that continued presence looks to have been re-secured. However, nobody can guarantee how long President Trump will remain committed to the mission, or even in his mind, to “the oil.” The counter-ISIS coalition met recently in Washington DC and reaffirmed its commitment to the mission in Syria, but uncertainty about America’s staying power was deeper than ever. “Nobody knows when the next Presidential tweet is coming,” one senior diplomat told me. “We can no longer count on America’s words or commitments,” said another. And yet all agreed that leaving Syria would be a deeply dangerous move.

To insure ourselves collectively from the consequences of another unexpected US policy reversal from the White House, US allies must urgently consider putting ‘more skin in the game.’ The Counter-ISIS coalition does not need a huge troop deployment to have the effect we seek, but a collective addition of 500 coalition special forces personnel – to the existing roughly 400 French and British troops already present, albeit covertly – could feasibly remove a great deal of the uncertainty about the sustainability of the current mission. Yes, the coalition relies heavily on American logistics and command-and-control infrastructure, but the core basis of those mechanisms would almost certainly remain in place via Iraq, even if US troops were to leave Syria in the future.

US allies could also work to enhance SDF leverage resulting from the control of oil infrastructure in Syria. Principally, it could be useful to re-entertain an old proposal, to provide the SDF with mobile oil refineries that would allow the SDF to refine its own oil product and avoid selling it to Damascus. That could significantly enhance both the SDF and the coalition’s negotiating leverage in Syria. As complex as the Syrian crisis remains today and as fatigued as the world has become with having to deal with it, we cannot avoid the central importance of Syria in determining regional and international security. That was the case in recent years and it will continue to be so in the future. We still have an important stake in Syria and we should work to shore it up, rather than leave it vulnerable to another inevitable shock.

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