The US has had an illegal military presence in Syria for at least the last seven years, and U.S. forces continue to operate in and above Syria without legal authorization. There is no discernible US security interest in keeping troops at the Tanf base in southeastern Syria, but the Biden administration has not removed them from the country and shows no sign of doing so. US troops have repeatedly come under attack in Syria, and there is always the possibility of clashes with Russian, Iranian, or pro-government Syrian forces for as long as they stay. Keeping troops in Syria is an unacceptable risk and an ongoing abuse of executive power, and all US forces must be withdrawn before their presence leads to an incident that might escalate into a larger conflict.
The Tanf base is a relic of the war against the Islamic State and Washington’s unsuccessful regime change policy aimed at toppling Assad. The war against the Islamic State is over for all intents and purposes, but it remains the fig leaf that both the Trump and Biden administrations hide behind when pressed to explain why US forces are still in Syria. Since that war was never authorized, this does nothing to legitimize the military presence, but the excuse provides political cover to keep troops in the country indefinitely. There was never any threat to the United States from Syria, and there isn’t one now, so there is no conceivable legitimate reason why US forces should still be in harm’s way all these years later.
Even if the US presence in Syria doesn’t lead to a new conflict, these forces have no business in another country without the permission of its government. Congress never voted to authorize the deployment of troops into Syria. Like some of our other illegal wars, this one was started by an arbitrary decision by Obama, and his successors have continued it. Because US troops in Syria have been engaged in hostilities and are likely to be engaged in hostilities in the future, this deployment cries out for a war powers challenge from Congress. Of course, Congress has preferred to ignore this issue and duck its responsibility as it usually does.
The Washington Post served as a messenger for the new head of Central Command, Gen. Michael Kurilla, who recently visited the base at Tanf and cast recent "provocative" actions by Russian and Iranian-backed forces in the area as "part of a wider attempt by US adversaries to reassert dominance in the region. No one would know from reading this report that US forces are in Syria in violation of international law and have no mandate to be there. Given the large US military footprint in the region and Washington’s network of heavily armed client states, the idea that Russia and Iran would be able to "reassert dominance" is laughable. The military sells the unending over-commitment of US forces in the Middle East by conjuring up an absurd story about how the US has to "protect" the region from the "dominance" of others, and our major news outlets are only too happy to repeat these claims without even a hint of skepticism.
Exaggerating threats from Russia and Iran is practically part of the job description for the head of Central Command. The incentive to exaggerate those threats has only increased as Washington’s attention has shifted back to Europe and away from the Middle East. Viewed in this light, we can see this report as a bid to reclaim some of that attention and to make sure that Central Command gets more resources to "confront" those overstated and imaginary threats.
Unsurprisingly, the article contains several quotes from hawkish think tankers amplifying the military’s message and contains nothing that would suggest that there is any reason to question what Central Command is saying. The tone of the article is one of frustration that the US hasn’t done more in response to the various "provocations." At one point, it mentions that US forces aren’t getting to use their weapons more "because the perceived dangers of responding with force are adjudged to be too high," and the article writer clearly wants the audience to conclude that this judgment is wrong. To the extent that there is any criticism of the Biden administration, it is to fault Biden for not responding forcefully enough. It is a useful example of how supposedly straight news coverage can be used to promote an agenda of interventionism and militarism.
The US military presence in Syria is unnecessary and unwise, and it will be a potential flashpoint for conflict until it ends. At best, it is a waste of resources and puts American lives in jeopardy for nothing. The cost of keeping this base long ago exceeded whatever benefit the US might get from it. Biden was prepared to make the correct decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan despite significant political opposition, and he should do the same here.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.