A US contractor was killed by a drone attack in northeastern Syria earlier this spring. The drone, which US officials identified as of Iranian origin, also wounded several US troops. In response, the United States launched airstrikes against Iranian-linked forces in Syria, killing an undetermined number of people (estimates vary). The Iran-linked militants retaliated with further attacks on US forces in Syria, injuring several US troops.
This violent episode, which has not yet escalated into further conflict, highlights the nearly 10-year US military presence in Syria. US forces have been conducting ground operations in Syria since 2015 despite the opposition to their presence by the Syrian government and the operations’ dubious justification in US law.
The current US presence in Syria results from the campaign against the terrorist group ISIS, which took control of significant territory in both Iraq and Syria in 2014. The United States responded to ISIS with air strikes, support for local forces fighting against the group, and direct intervention by US ground forces. In 2017, 2,000 US troops were in Syria.
Although ISIS has been greatly weakened over the years, roughly 900 US troops remain in northeastern Syria today, along with perhaps hundreds of contractors. US forces, who collaborate with a local militia known as Syrian Democratic Forces, remain in Syria at least partly to prevent a resurgence of ISIS (about 2,500 US troops are in Iraq for the same purpose). In February of this year, several US troops were wounded in an anti-ISIS operation in Syria.
A major complication for the US mission in Syria is that it is opposed by the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad. Although Assad’s regime has also long fought against ISIS, the regime’s brutal repression of its own people and repeated US attacks on the regime have placed Syria and the United States at odds.
The Syrian Mission to the United Nations recently commented that “The Syrian Arab Republic affirms that the practices of the United States of America and the illegal presence of its forces on parts of the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic is an actual embodiment of the crime of aggression."
The enmity between Syria and the United States is only deepened by Syria’s alignment with Russia and Iran. The forces involved in the violent exchange in March are supposedly linked to Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. This recent clash is only the latest in many violent episodes over the past two years involving US and Iran-linked forces in Syria.
Echoing the Syrian statement, an Iranian representative commented that “The U.S. military presence in Syria is illegal and violates international law… The Syrian government regards the United States as an occupying power.”
Another complication for the US mission is that, even apart from the Syrian government’s opposition, its legitimacy under American law is unclear. Despite being a significant military operation, the anti-ISIS campaign in Syria has never been authorized by the US Congress. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have argued the campaign is covered by the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force against al Qaeda, which was passed by Congress shortly after 9/11. Given that ISIS is a distinct organization from al Qaeda—ISIS did not even exist in 2001—this rationale is strained.
While American policymakers might favor a US military presence in Syria as a means of fighting ISIS and checking Syrian and Iranian power, the US mission there presents serious dangers. As the March incident shows, the mission puts the lives of American troops and contractors at risk. As the same incident also shows, the mission threatens to spark a larger conflict with Iranian proxies that could spiral out of control. Lastly, the mission continues the dangerous pattern of US presidents waging war without congressional oversight or approval.
The US mission in Syria has gone on for too long and cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. US policymakers must seek a path toward ending the mission and bringing the troops home.