US troops still under fire in ‘forgotten’ war in Syria

  • In late August, many Americans were reminded that the United States was actively engaged in military combat.
  • But the conflict in which American troops are involved is not in Afghanistan or Ukraine. It’s in Syria.

Last week, many Americans were reminded that the United States remains actively engaged in military combat overseas. But this conflict is not in Afghanistan, where the United States withdrew its forces last August. Nor is it in Ukraine, where President Joe Biden has worked to avoid direct military involvement. It’s in Syria.

Last week, the Biden administration authorized airstrikes against Iran-backed militants in response to rocket attacks on bases housing US forces. While militant rockets caused only minor injuries to US troops, reports indicate that US retaliatory strikes were quite extensive and deadly.

While the war in Afghanistan seemed to go on for “an eternity” and the war in Ukraine has “fixed” the public for the past six months, the war in Syria seems to be largely “forgotten”.

To be fair, he did draw attention at times, such as when then-President Barack Obama decided not to attack Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in response to the use of weapons. chemicals in 2013, or when his successor, President Donald Trump, chose to respond with force to a chemical weapons attack in 2017.

There was also a lot of outrage over the brutal killings – including of Americans – by the Islamic State in 2015, as well as angst over the American decision to “abandon the Kurds” — the partners on the ground in the US-led coalition that went on to defeat Islamic State militarily — in 2019. Even the 2016 vice-presidential debate had a segment on war.

American troops in Qamishli Kurdish Syria

US troops patrol near the Kurdish-majority town of Qamishli in Syria’s northeast Hasakeh province on April 20, 2022.


But overall, the Syrian war has failed to capture the attention of the American public, for several reasons.

First, the Syrian war is complex. It is a civil war, with various militant groups and militias engaged in combat against the Assad regime, as well as against each other. Many outside actors have intervened in the fighting, including the United States, which largely supports anti-Assad rebels, and Russia, which supports the Assad regime, but also Iran, Hezbollah and Turkey.

The complexity of the conflict and the number of intervening powers make it analogous to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s or even the Thirty Years’ War that rocked central Europe in the 1600s.

Not only is the United States just one of many players in the war, but unlike the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan or the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was not the initiator or one of the main participants in the conflict. Washington has largely played a supporting role as a belligerent – ​​although, unlike Ukraine, it is a belligerent. This means that events like the one last week, where US troops were directly attacked, are few and far between. This, in turn, serves to keep US involvement in Syria out of the public eye.

This does not mean that the United States played no role in starting the conflict. When protests against the Assad regime emerged in 2011, Obama issued a statement saying, “Syria’s future must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad stands in their way. For the good of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step down. »

Perhaps fearing intervention from Washington, the Assad regime has stepped up its crackdown on protesters. And perhaps anticipating US support, insurgent groups began fighting back. They were then armed and trained largely by Western forces, including the United States. The war was ongoing and Obama’s statement may have contributed to the escalation of violence.

But the United States was at best tangential to the main drivers of the conflict. Protests against Assad have erupted in the wake of pro-democracy “Arab Spring” movements that have spread across the Middle East and North Africa. These movements largely died out, with the autocratic status quo remaining intact. But some, like Syria, but also Libya and Yemen, have started civil wars.


Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Qusair, June 5, 2013.

REUTERS/Mohammed Azakir

Second, there is a perception that US interest in the conflict ended with the military defeat of the Islamic State in 2019. It was the rise of the Islamic State that initiated the direct involvement of the United States in the war.

The group, which emerged in Iraq, took advantage of the unrest in Syria to quickly amass territorial gains. It then gained widespread attention in 2015, when it peaked in Syria and Iraq, while sponsoring terrorist attacks around the world and displaying its brutal violence in online videos.

When the US-led coalition defeated the organization and eliminated its territorial control, it suggested, at least to the American public, that the war was over. At a minimum, this should have meant the end of American involvement in the war. He does not have.

The Islamic State rose to prominence because of the war – it was a result rather than a cause of the conflict. But even with the group’s defeat, the conditions that allowed it to flourish – the “ungoverned” spaces created by the fighting in Syria – remained. And to prevent any possible resurgence of the group, the US-led coalition stayed as well.

While this may make sense from a geostrategic perspective, it makes the rationale for the continued US presence in Syria unclear to the American public.

isis raqqa

An ISIS operative in Raqqa, Syria, June 29, 2014.


Third, the war in Ukraine has become a focal point of international attention, including the attention of the American public. But imagine a scenario in which Russia did not invade Ukraine in February.

If so, the end of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan in August 2021 may have led to further public and congressional calls to end U.S. involvement in other parts of the ” Greater Middle East,” from Syria to Somalia — something Trump has repeatedly threatened to do.

At the time of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Biden administration argued that withdrawing resources from Afghanistan would allow the United States to focus those resources elsewhere, including continuing efforts to eradicate the last vestiges of the state. Islam in Syria. But leaving Afghanistan, particularly the chaotic nature of the withdrawal, could also have fueled calls for Washington to reduce its military footprint across the region.

Indeed, it initially looked like the Biden administration would follow such a path. But events soon overtook those plans. Long before any European country, the Biden administration was aware that Putin was planning to invade Ukraine and engaged in efforts to convince its European allies of the impending danger.

The continued presence of Russian troops in Syria may have contributed to Biden’s decision to keep US troops there as well, as it could prevent Russia from fully redeploying its own forces to Ukraine.

The fact that the war in Syria has become the “forgotten war” points to a more disturbing trend in American foreign policy: the United States is so engaged in wars and interventions around the world that a conflict involving the military that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians doesn’t even register with the American public anymore.

This is perhaps the price to pay for playing such an essential global role and being the “indispensable nation” – that a nation is involved in so many conflicts that it can forget one.

Paul Poast is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago and a nonresident member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


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