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Whose war is the US fighting in Syria, and why?

American troops have been exchanging fire with alleged Iran-backed militas all week. The timing is curious, and dangerous.

Analysis | Middle East

U.S. forces in Syria have been carrying out strikes against “Iran-backed” militias this week in response to a recent drone attack on the American base at Tanf and rocket attacks at two other bases in northeastern Syria.

The first U.S. strike this week came in response to an August 15 attack, and that was quickly followed up by another hit. These airstrikes reportedly targeted bunkers used by the militias and killed between six and 10 people.

A later militia strike at bases in Deir al-Zour resulted in three U.S. troops suffering minor injuries, and the U.S. responded to that with Apache attack helicopters on Wednesday, reportedly resulting in casualties. It remains to be seen if the clashes will continue, but there has already been considerable escalation in just a few days. 

Keeping American troops in Syria has been a serious mistake that multiple administrations have failed to correct. The longer that U.S. forces illegally remain in that country, the more likely it is that one of these clashes will result in casualties that could have been avoided. The Biden administration may be reluctant to withdraw troops from another country after what happened during the Afghanistan withdrawal, but their continued presence in Syria makes them targets and does nothing to make the United States more secure. 

Bottom line: The risk to U.S. forces in Syria is increasing, and there are no discernible benefits from keeping them where they are that justify taking that risk. Contrary to what Biden has said, the U.S. is still at war in Syria, but it shouldn’t be and it doesn’t have to be.

What caused this latest eruption of fighting? The original August 15 attack on Tanf was likely retaliation for Israeli airstrikes in other parts of Syria just hours before. This is not the first time that U.S. troops have come under fire from militias as a response to Israeli strikes in Syria. Something similar happened in October 2021, when the base at Tanf was targeted in a drone attack in response to Israeli strikes.

As The Wall Street Journal reported in June of this year, Israel coordinates with the U.S. on many of its airstrikes in Syria, and these attacks take place with our government’s knowledge and approval. U.S. troops are being put at risk at least in part because the Israeli government is waging its so-called shadow war against Iranian targets in Syria.

As we know, American troops in Iraq and Syria have been coming under fire many times in tit-for-tat exchanges for several years dating back to the Trump administration. These are not isolated incidents, but form a pattern of hostilities with several armed groups in both countries. Fortunately, there have been no American fatalities as a result, but these troops should not continue to be put in harm’s way when no vital U.S. interests are at stake. 

Meanwhile, the repeated clashes in Syria have ratcheted up tensions with Iran and threaten to undermine the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. The Biden administration cannot allow this latest episode interfere with the successful conclusion of the nuclear negotiations to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On the contrary, the back-and-forth attacks in Syria serve as a reminder of how important it is for the U.S. to salvage the nuclear deal. 

When the JCPOA was fully in force before the U.S. withdrawal, tensions with Iran were relatively low and U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria were not being attacked on a regular basis. The best way to return to that earlier state of affairs would be to restore the nuclear deal and end the economic war against Iran that followed the U.S. breach of the agreement. One of the main benefits of the JCPOA for the U.S. was that it made direct conflict with Iran less likely, and it is because it removed one of their main pretexts for war that Iran hawks have opposed the agreement so bitterly since its inception. 

The Israeli government has made no secret of its hostility to the nuclear deal, and it has been consistently lobbying against it since before it was first concluded. It is possible that the timing of the recent U.S. strikes on militias in Syria was meant to “reassure” Israeli officials visiting Washington this week that reviving the nuclear deal will not prevent the Biden administration from using force against Iranian proxies.  If the Biden administration thinks that its willingness to bomb targets in Syria will earn it a reprieve from the Israeli government’s resistance to the agreement, they are sure to be disappointed. 

Even though many Israeli security officials believe reviving the nuclear deal is squarely in the best interests of Israel and some former officials have said so publicly, the political leadership will not budge from its die-hard rejectionism. There is no point in making efforts to “reassure” a government that is dead-set on refusing to be reassured.

This latest military action in Syria has implications for the debate over war powers and presidential authority as well. Recent U.S. strikes in Syria are legally questionable at best. The Biden administration has cited the president’s Article II authority and justified the actions as self-defense, but, like earlier strikes that Biden has approved, the strikes have been carried out as reprisals many days after the original attack. 

The administration has not claimed that the strikes are covered by either the 2001 or 2002 AUMFs. Regardless, the U.S. military presence in Syria is unauthorized by Congress and has no international mandate. The ostensible purpose of the deployments in Syria — to combat the remnants of the Islamic State — is difficult to take seriously when ISIS is a shadow of its former self and the main threat to U.S. personnel at these bases has been coming from Iranian-backed and pro-Syrian government forces. 

Even if one accepted the official line that U.S. troops are simply there to fight ISIS, Congress never authorized that mission, either. If there is a military mission that cries out for a war powers challenge from Congress, it is the one in Syria. 

It would be wise for the Biden administration to remove all U.S. forces from Syria as soon as possible. Ideally, Biden should do the same for U.S. troops still in Iraq. Keeping troops in Syria makes no sense in terms of protecting the United States or its treaty allies, and it only puts them at risk for an ill-defined mission that Congress never approved.

 Withdrawing from Syria would make good on the president’s commitment to end our country’s endless wars, and it would eliminate the chance of new incidents that could spiral into a larger conflict. If U.S. forces stay in Syria, it is probably just a matter of time before American troops are seriously injured or killed, and there is no good reason to take that chance.

A soldier deployed to At-Tanf Garrison, Syria, fires an M3 Carl Gustaf Recoilless Rifle during a familiarization range hosted by Special Forces July 19, 2020. (US Army Photo by Spc. Chris Estrada)
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