A Strangulation Strategy*

*Editor’s note: On March 4, 2022, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

Orientalist Dmitry Polyakov – on why the United States is not withdrawing troops from Syria.

At the end of January, there were renewed talks about withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria. Rumors about withdrawal have been circulating in the press for several years. An article by Charles Lister in Foreign Policy magazine prompted the new discussion. As the director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism & Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute, a leading U.S. think tank, the author is well-versed in American affairs in the Middle East. Thus, the article makes you wonder: maybe, this time, the Americans are really leaving?

According to Lister’s sources in the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon, Washington is no longer interested in keeping its armed forces in the Syrian Arab Republic. The reason is clear: against the backdrop of a new chapter in Palestinian-Israeli conflict, pro-Iranian proxy forces have begun striking American military objects in the region with greater intensity. The U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq are most vulnerable right now. In 2023 alone, the U.S. facilities in the Syrian Arab Republic were attacked 63 times. That’s why the Biden administration is allegedly reassessing its regional priorities and rejecting toxic assets.

This is not the first time Washington has tried to withdraw its forces from Syria. But the Americans only turned words into action in October 2019. Donald Trump began but never finished the process of withdrawal. Trump maintained a small contingent in the Syrian Arab Republic after his withdrawal plan drew wide criticism. As a result, U.S. forces were redeployed, bolstering their presence in the Governorates of Al-Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor.

The U.S. entered the Syrian armed conflict in 2014 as part the International Coalition Against the Islamic State. Starting in 2015, Washington established its own full-scale presence “on the ground.” Since then, 30 American military facilities have been operating in Syria under the pretext of fighting terrorism; the total number of its contingent force amounts to no less than 900 troops. Most of these bases are in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria that is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces – a Kurdish-Arabic military alliance created on the foundation of the Kurdish People’s Defense Units. The so-called deconfliction zone around the Al-Tanf checkpoint became another region where the American military had a presence. Although the Syrian Free Army officially manages this territory, the real administration and military protection of the zone remains in American hands. Last summer, the press spread rumors that U.S. intended to merge the two zones into a common opposition project. But the rumors never went further than talks.

The entire American policy in Syria can be boiled down to a single formula: to strangle the Syrian economy and increase the cost for Russia and Iran to support the official government. With just a limited contingent, Washington consistently implements this policy with small forces.

Its presence in the Autonomous Administration allows the U.S. to influence the energy situation across the entire country. Syria is undergoing an acute fuel crisis. Only 10% of the required volume of oil is produced in government-controlled regions; the rest is produced in the territories of the Autonomous Administration. Aside from that, after the U.S. effectively imposed an embargo on the Syrian government on supplies from the Autonomous Administration, Damascus remains dependent on help from friendly countries. The energy deficit negatively impacts the overall socioeconomic situation within Syria. Meanwhile, American companies unlawfully plunder Syrian oil and export it to the Kurdistan Region, covering their costs for maintaining the U.S. contingent force.

It is noteworthy that in the zones where the U.S. is present, there are prisons holding members of the Islamic State and camps for their family members. The number of prison escapes from these facilities has increased significantly since 2022. The steady stream of combatants from the Syrian northeast and the Al-Tanf region is evidence that Washington is conducting a policy of controlled escalation aimed at creating additional pressure on Damascus, Moscow and Tehran. Terrorists began to appear deep in the rear – where they had been absent for several years. There has been a marked increase in terrorist activity since mid-2022. Over just the first 10 days of January, a third of Islamic State attacks around the world occurred in the Syrian Arab Republic. It’s not a coincidence that the intensification of terrorist attacks coincided with the beginning of the Russian special military operation in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Special Envoy on Syria Alexander Lavryentiev said, “The Americans set for their associates from the ranks of the Syrian armed opposition the tasks of inflicting maximal damage to the Russian military contingent in Syria.”

Deterring Iran is another key objective of U.S. strategy. This consists of making it harder for the Islamic Republic to use the Syrian foothold to project its influence over the region. So, one of the main tasks of U.S. forces “on the ground” is to reduce the effectiveness of the Tehran-Beirut land corridor, which passes through Iraq and Syria and includes the main players within Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” project. In this configuration, the Al-Tanf garrison is the main object of deterrence – a 55-kilometer (34-mile) zone blocking a vital border crossing point on the road between Baghdad and Damascus. So Iran is being forced to build its corridor much farther to the north, through the Abu Kamal/Al-Qa’im checkpoint. This border pass is quite narrow for a logistics channel because American forces also occupy the opposite side of the Euphrates.

As such, Washington solves several tasks at once with a limited contingent force. It would be disadvantageous to reject these assets. On top of that, the real situation, to the contrary, differs from American headlines. Since the end of last year, the U.S. has begun to bolster its military force. Given the current state of affairs, leaving Syria with increased shelling from Iranian proxies would be a serious blow to America’s reputation. The U.S. is, to this day, is the main supplier of field security in the Middle East. The rapid withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2021 shook America’s position in the region. So, the current escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is yet another challenge for America’s influence. All the United States’ Middle East allies are watching how the security provider from across the ocean will react. If Washington refuses to fulfill obligations and provides Iran with more opportunities to attack Israel from Syrian territory, it will provide another sign for the countries in the region that they have to diversify their connections when it comes to defense policy.

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About Artem Belov 83 Articles
Artem Belov is a TESOL-certified English teacher and a freelance translator (Russian>English and English>Russian) based in Australia but currently traveling abroad. He is working on a number of projects, including game localization. You can reach him at belov.g.artem@gmail.com

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