It was just last spring that President Trump promised that, with ISIS nearly wiped out, “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.”
On Monday, national security adviser John Bolton made it very clear that the U.S. troop presence in the war-torn country will continue indefinitely, telling the AP, “We’re not going to leave [Syria] as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”
There are currently about 2,200 U.S. troops in Syria, mostly in the country’s northeast, where they have fought alongside the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS. Other senior administration officials, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the State Department’s representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, have previously stated that U.S. troops will be remaining after the fight against ISIS is over, and that containing Iranian influence would be one of the goals, but Bolton’s statement was still surprisingly specific: The U.S. isn’t leaving Syria until all Iranian troops and militias are out of the country—perhaps as many as 20,000 fighters, and an integral part of the forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad.
Bolton’s statement could raise new questions from Congress about the legality of the U.S. troop presence in Syria. Combat operations against ISIS, in theory, fall under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists passed after 9/11. It’s already a stretch to apply this authorization to ISIS, which didn’t exist in 2001, but applying it to a pressure campaign against Iran would make a mockery of the whole process.
The U.S. troops on the ground will find themselves operating in an environment becoming more complex and dangerous by the minute. A last-minute deal between Turkey and Russia last week forestalled what was sure to be a disastrously bloody offensive in Idlib province. But it’s still not clear if rebel groups in the region, particularly the formerly al-Qaida–linked Tahrir al-Sham, will abide by the terms of the deal. The U.S. has threatened to again use military force against the Syrian regime if it uses chemical weapons in the offensive against Idlib.
Last week also saw Syrian forces shoot down an ally plane, one of Russia’s, highlighting the dangers of having so many foreign militaries operating in such close proximity. Russia and the Syrian regime blame the incident on Israel, which has been waging an ongoing air campaign against Iranian assets inside Syria. The diplomatic fallout blew over quickly, but Russia raised the stakes Monday by announcing it will provide the Syrian regime with an S-300 air defense system. Bolton called this move a “major mistake” that would inflame tensions, noting, “We have American forces in the area we’re concerned about.”
Complicating matters further, it’s not clear that the U.S. troops’ Kurdish allies from the fight against ISIS are on the same page when it comes to pressuring Assad and containing Iran. Kurdish officials have suggested they would consider joining the offensive against Idlib, which is currently under the control of rebel groups backed by their rival Turkey. Turkey, meanwhile, is looking to increase the number of “safe zones” in northern Syria, which could mean sweeping out the U.S.-backed Kurdish militias that Ankara considers terrorists.
For all the complications involved in their presence, it’s not clear what exactly U.S. troops would do to combat Iranian influence in Syria. The U.S. has on several occasions launched strikes against pro-Assad forces—in addition to the two high-profile strikes that followed Syrian chemical weapons attacks—but has mostly avoided direct conflict with them, and it’s been made abundantly clear that the U.S. has no plans to remove Assad by force. So as long as the Syrian president remains in power, and remains dependent on Iranian support, American troops would appear to be stuck. It could be a long wait.