A Syrian website run by opponents of the Assad regime recently reported that in early June that Russian military officials in Syria's Deir ez-Zor Province met with Iranian operatives. The primary agenda of the Russian-Iranian meeting was reportedly "to discuss expelling the United States from Syria, which may indicate Russia's intent to facilitate Iranian-backed attacks on US forces."
After a series of Iran-directed attacks on U.S. military outposts in Syria and the kinetic responses from American forces, leaked documents indicate that Iran is planning to target US armored vehicles in Syria by with remotely-detonated roadside bombs.
Iranian trainers and Lebanese Hezbollah operatives continue to prepare pro-Iranian jihadists in Syria, such as the Kata'ib Hezbollah, to wage an extended and more lethal campaign against Syria-based US forces. One media report claims that additional trainers from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have arrived in Deir ez-Zor Province to train the local jihadists in the use of advanced drones and explosive devices to inflict more casualties on US troops.
The US, presumably in anticipation of heightened hostilities, on June 10 reinforced its military posts in al-Hasakah with a convoy of armored vehicles, fuel trucks and ammunition.
Some commentators claim that the US has no vital interest in maintaining a troop presence in Syria, and that Syria is no longer sovereign, just a failed and fragmented state. Others fear that America could get drawn into another war in the Middle East. Still others claim that that "the US has already lost in Syria."
While many of these apprehensions may be justifiable -- surrender, of course, is always an option, if not always a good one -- there are persuasive political and military reasons for the US to maintain a military presence in Syria. Above all, the US presence is important as a blocking force to deny Iran an uninterrupted land bridge to Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean, and to check the Iranian regime's long-term expansionist dream of "exporting the revolution."
Iran already effectively controls three countries in addition to its own – Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen – and has been broadening its influence throughout Latin America.
The major US troop presence in Syria is at a base at al-Tanf, in at a strategic point on the tri-border point of Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. Absent this base, Tehran could deliver weapons from Iranian-dominated Syria across the border to Hezbollah-controlled territory in Lebanon. Such a thoroughfare would also increase Iran's capacity to threaten Israel with extinction as it has been threatening to do since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran has already attacked Israel from Syria through one of its many proxy forces, Lebanese Hezbollah, as well regularly smuggling missiles and other arms through Syria into Lebanon, for Hezbollah to use in attacking Israel.
Any drawdown of the US troop presence at al-Tanf will also tempt adversarial "great powers" in Syria -- such as Iran, Russia and especially Turkey -- to attack US allies in the region, starting with the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Additionally, any decision to gradually reduce the American troop presence simply increases the vulnerability of remaining US personnel to drone attacks or other assaults.
The US presence, in addition, greatly helps safeguard the liberty of countless Syrians from the tyrannical Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and helps to keep alive the idea of a democratic Syria, free of regional powers such as, again, Russia, Turkey and Iran.
The pro-democratic forces in Syria and border regions in Iraq also help to prevent the remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS) from reconstituting itself into a robust terrorist entity, as they have already started to do.
The mostly Kurdish US-allied local forces have already lost more than 11,000 fighters in their long campaign against ISIS. The US depends upon these Kurdish troops to keep remaining ISIS fighters in the region confined to low level of operational activity. US Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander, during her September 2022 visit to the region, characterized the mission of these forces as "to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS."
US Special Forces advisors, trainers, and soldiers, deployed in several outposts in northeast Syria, by organizing joint security patrols and checkpoints, also serve as a "bridge of trust" between the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish fighters. The continued presence of US military personnel in Syria helps monitor cooperation between the Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces who share the responsibility to patrol the Internal Disputed Boundary (IDB) between Iraq and the autonomous Iraqi Provinces of Kurdistan, where ISIS terrorists remain active and which requires constant surveillance.
Additional reasons for US forces to remain in Syria include the ability to check the power of dozens of pro-Iranian militias ("Popular Mobilization Forces") which threaten Iraqi sovereignty. The US has attacked hostile pro-Iranian groups in Syria, and US contractors have been extracting oil from Iraqi fields, thereby enabling Baghdad to maintain a solvent regime, with funds to pay Iraqi soldiers and government officials.
A withdrawal of US forces from their current Syrian redoubts will almost certainly imperil the sovereignty of Iraq, Syria as well as the mission of Kurdish troops. These missions include: guarding prisons that hold hundreds of incarcerated ISIS jihadists as well as monitoring the expansive displaced persons camp at al-Hol, which hosts tens of thousands of the wives and children of ISIS jihadists.
If the Kurds are not able to execute their mission of suppressing ISIS, the failure would quickly lead to a rapid expansion of the terrorist group.
Moreover, if US troops no longer served as a blocking force, Turkey would doubtless be sorely tempted to invade Kurdish areas of Syria now controlled by local Kurds. The Turkish government has long claimed dominance over the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. And the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has targeted Turkey for decades.
Most gravely, closure of the US mission in Syria would cause alarm among allies and risk accelerating an already precipitous decline in US influence throughout the Middle East.
Departure also would likely further decrease confidence in US pledges to defend vulnerable democracies throughout the world. Both Taiwan and archipelago countries in Southeast Asia would probably be the most affected by any US plan that abandoned the Kurds to Turkey, Iran and ISIS. There is little doubt that the image of US primacy on the world stage, as after the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, will deteriorate even further. Ally and adversary alike will seek non-American alternatives to protect their national interests.
Although a continued US troop presence in Syria is not without risk, withdrawal from the country would no doubt trigger an even greater risk to America's interests -- while remaining in Syria accomplishes much, at minimal cost.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.