Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a speech at Stanford University on Wednesday that U.S. troops in Syria—thought to currently number around 2,000—would be remaining there indefinitely, even after all of ISIS’s territory has been retaken. What exactly those troops will be doing is unclear—other than finding themselves in the middle of a new and unpredictable phase of the Syrian conflict, where it’s getting harder to figure out just what side the United States is on, or what the sides even are.
The latest round of controversy started last weekend when the U.S.-led military coalition announced that, with operations against ISIS winding down, its troops would be working to create a 30,000-strong border security force made up mostly of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the U.S. had backed to fight ISIS. The SDF is made up primarily of fighters from YPG, a Kurdish militia that aims to set up an autonomous region in northeast Syria along the Turkish border. The new force, as the New York Times reported on Tuesday, has the potential to cement the Kurds’ autonomous status.
But wait! The YPG is closely allied with the PKK, a Kurdish guerilla group that has been fighting the Turkish government for decades and is widely considered a terrorist organization, including by the U.S. The YPG claims it is independent from the PKK, though it is openly devoted to promoting the teachings of the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Unlike their Kurdish counterparts in Iraq, Syrian Kurdish leaders say they don’t want full independence, just more regional autonomy—a Syrian Kurdish official I spoke with in Iraq in 2016 compared their vision to the federal structure of the U.S. or Canada, meaning they’d be like a state within Syria rather than an independent country. This has done little to reassure their neighbors
The idea of a YPG-affiliated force patrolling the border is strongly opposed by the governments of Syria, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The U.S. probably couldn’t care less about how the first three feel, but Turkey—a NATO ally—is more of a problem. U.S. support for what Ankara considers a terrorist organization has been a sticking point in the deteriorating U.S.–Turkey relationship for awhile now. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was predictably furious in response to the latest news, accusing the U.S. of forming a “terror army” on the Turkish border and vowing to “strangle it before it’s even born.” Turkey also built up its military forces on the border and vowed to send troops into Syria’s Afrin area unless the U.S. withdrew its support for the SDF.
This prompted U.S. officials to backtrack, with Tillerson saying that the new force had been “misportrayed, misdescribed” and was not a border force at all. The Pentagon announced that the force would be focused on preventing the return of ISIS and providing security to liberated areas, and described Turkey’s concerns as “legitimate.”
Then came Tillerson’s Stanford speech, where he muddied the waters even more by, as the Washington Post reports, listing goals for the remaining U.S. troops including “vanquishing al-Qaeda, ousting Iran and securing a peace settlement that excludes President Bashar al-Assad.” The last goal is a far cry from Trump’s campaign argument that the U.S. should ignore or even partner with Assad to focus on ISIS.
“The United States believes that free and transparent elections … will result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power,” Tillerson said at Stanford. “Assad’s regime is corrupt, and his methods of governance and economic development have increasingly excluded certain ethnic and religious groups. Such oppression cannot persist forever.”
The hypothetical democratic election that will remove Assad from power has been part of U.S. officials’ boilerplate for a while now, but stating it as part of the goal of U.S. troops is new, even if it’s very unclear how 2,000 troops based in Kurdish-controlled areas far from Damascus will actually provide any leverage over Assad.
At the same time, the Assad regime stated today that it would consider any Turkish military incursion into Syria (presumably to curb the SDF) an act of aggression and was willing to shoot down Turkish jets.
Russia, meanwhile, is still hoping to host peace talks in Sochi later this month, but Turkey–Kurd tensions are, shall we say, making that difficult. (Turkey has vowed to pull out if the Kurds are invited.) Adding to the mutual suspicion, a Russian airbase in Syria was mysteriously attacked by mortar fire and a swarm of drones earlier this month, and Turkish-backed groups are thought to have been involved. The U.S. and European powers are not that happy about the Sochi talks either, given that Russia is not exactly a neutral arbiter, and the parallel process could undermine the ongoing U.N.-led talks in Geneva.
So, with all this going on, what are these American troops doing? Protecting the territorial gains of Kurdish revolutionaries from Turkey and Assad? Pressuring Assad to step down? Countering Iranian influence? Just making sure ISIS doesn’t come back? Nobody really knows, but based on how this war has gone so far, their ultimate role could very well be something entirely unexpected and not at all helpful.