The U.S. and Conflict in Syria

Special Forces M-ATV Syria

The Syrian conflict has been ongoing for over a decade. It began as a civil war between the Syrian government and opponents of the Assad regime. The opposition was comprised of several different groups of varying ideological persuasions. Over time, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), grew and acquired a significant amount of Syrian territory in central Syria.

Fighting ISIS and Supporting the SDF. The United States has been involved in the conflict since 2014; beginning first with air strikes against a Islamic State army that had captured much of Syria. Some airstrikes were conducted by the U.S. against Syrian targets associated with the employment of chemical weapons. In time, a sizeable element of U.S. special operations forces (augmented by enabling units) were deployed into Syria to assist the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) and other partner units in its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The SDF were composed mostly of Kurds living in the northeast region of Syria. Over the course of several years ISIS was finally defeated. Some U.S. SOF are still there today, continuing to counter groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and providing support to the SDF.

Map of Syrian Conflict CRS Nov 2022

Map from Congressional Research Service, Fall 2022.

Foreign Presence. Five countries are currently operating in or have a military presence on the ground in Syria. Russia and Iran are assisting the Syrian regime. Turkey has a presence along the Turkish-Syrian border and bleeding into northern Syria. It supports some opposition groups as well as mounts attacks on the Syrian Democratic Front. The United States is supporting the SDF and a few other smaller Syrian groups; mostly located in eastern and northeastern Syria. The Israeli Air Force has conducted air attacks on Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah targets.

Conflict Stalemate. The current conflict is considered a stalemate by most military observers although the situation has certainly shifted to the favor of the Syrian regime. The Syrian government and its partners, including Russian and Iran, are opposed by various opposition and extremist groups that are reduced to occupying small regions of Syria. The military front lines have not shifted much in the past few years. While Syria might be able to end the civil war through military means, the underlying conditions for the conflict would continue to persist. The SDF maintains its presence and control in the Kurdish region of Syria.

Islamic State. Although this organization has been defeated and no longer holds territory it poses a threat to Syria and U.S. interests in the region. It still exists as an insurgency and has made inroads into the several humanitarian camps housing refugees. Over 10,000 ISIS fighters are in detention – held in prisons manned by the SDF.

Al Qaeda. Militants aligned with Al Qaeda are using Syria as a safe haven to coordinate their activities and plan operations that could be conducted outside of Syria. Most of the Al Qaeda members are located in the Idlib region in northwest Syria.

Map of Syria Fall 2022 OIR IG

Map from Fall 2022 Lead Inspector General Report on OIR.

U.S. Presence. As of November 2022 the United States is estimated to have approximately 900 troops in Syria supporting local partners like the SDF. These troops are located in areas controlled by the SDF and in the small enclave of Al Tanf. The U.S. units are advising, assisting, and enabling partner forces in Syria to counter the Islamic State. From time to time the Department of Defense announces the killing or capture of high-level terrorist targets in Syria by SOF elements or with the use of air strikes.

Current U.S. Activities. The United States has limited policy goals (and options) in Syria. The current effort is ensuring that the Islamic State and Al Qaeda do not become stronger than they are now. The U.S. is assisting the Syrian Democratic Front, providing humanitarian aid to displaced populations, and assisting in stabilization activities.

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Photo: Green Berets wait in a M-ATV Special Forces Vehicle for a gun truck from the Maghaweir al-Thowra (MaT) partner force to join their joint patrol mission near At-Tanf Garrison, Syria, April 29, 2020. Coalition forces train and advise the MaT in southern Syria in pursuit of the enduring defeat of Daesh and to set conditions for regional stability. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. William Howard)

References:

Operation Inherent Resolve, Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress, Fall 2022, PDF, 112 pages. https://media.defense.gov/2022/Nov/01/2003106275/-1/-1/1/OIR_Q4_SEP22_GOLD_508.PDF

Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, Congressional Research Service (CRS), November 8, 2022, PDF, 32 pages. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/RL/RL33487


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