The illegal U.S. military occupation in northeastern Syria is rapidly turning into a policy debacle as well. There is little question that the presence of U.S. troops and armed contractors (mercenaries) is utterly illegal under international law. The Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad, which is recognized by the United Nations and the vast majority of countries, never invited those forces to enter Syria. Moreover, Damascus has repeatedly demanded that they be withdrawn. U.S. leaders have flatly refused to do so, using the flimsy excuse that ISIS still poses a threat to regional peace despite its drastically depleted ranks.
It is not a coincidence that northeastern Syria contains most of the country’s oil reserves, and that both the United States and the Kurds, Washington’s secessionist clients there, have profited handsomely from U.S. protection. Moreover, U.S. leaders have never abandoned their goal of ousting Assad, Iran’s principal regional ally, and shielding a de facto Kurdish state weakens Assad.
However, U.S. policy is encountering a growing array of embarrassing difficulties. The latest incident occurred on October 5 when a U.S. fighter shot down an armed Turkish drone over Syria after it allegedly came too close to the American aircraft. A U.S. official stated that the action was taken because U.S. forces were operating in the area. Turkey has been waging an undeclared, but very real war, against Kurdish forces in both Syria and Iraq for years. The intensity of those attacks have spiked since Turkish officials blamed Kurdish militants for an October 1 bombing incident in Ankara. Kurdish leaders in Syria are pressing the United States to shoot down even more Turkish drones.
Washington’s relations with fellow NATO member Turkey already are frayed for multiple reasons, including Ankara’s reluctance to continue supporting a hardline policy toward Russia. Tensions over Syria policy are likely to deepen that estrangement.
U.S. policy in Syria has even bigger problems. Several armed battles, with multiple fatalities, have erupted between the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Arab factions that are also U.S. clients opposed to Assad. One such bloody shootout took place on August 22, another on August 29. On October 2, tribal forces reportedly launched a massive attack on SDF positions, targeting around 13 checkpoints and headquarters. News coverage in northeast Syria is spotty, so it is difficult to tell how many people may have perished in the latest fighting.
Moreover, the fighting apparently has displaced thousands of civilians, adding to Syria’s already horrific refugee crisis. In addition, there is evidence that SDF forces are using the turbulence to engage in ethnic cleansing of Arabs, driving them from their homes and refusing to let them return.
Such developments are not only an embarrassment for U.S. policy in Syria, it should be yet another source of shame. The United States has created a humanitarian catastrophe in that poor country in the name of trying to impede Iranian influence in the Middle East. Assad’s great sin was being Tehran’s close ally. U.S. leaders then became determined to oust him from power, no matter what the cost to the Syrian people. Washington even has been willing to back Assad’s ultra-Islamist domestic opponents, and falsely portray them as democratic freedom fighters. During Barack Obama’s administration, former CIA Director David Petraeus urged the U.S. government to make common cause with Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria). He argued that at least some of that organization’s jihadists could be “peeled away” and become useful allies to fight both ISIS and the Assad regime. That proposal deserved an award for cruel cynicism.
The obsession with overthrowing Assad was a major factor in triggering and sustaining Syria’s bloody civil war, now in its second decade. Washington’s military meddling has created an appalling human tragedy. The effort to unseat Assad has resulted in hideous carnage, as well as the displacement of innocent people throughout Syria. In addition to the more than 300,000 Syrians who have perished in the fighting since 2011, some 6.8 million have become refugees.
Washington’s illegal and immoral military presence in Syria needs to end immediately. Unfortunately, the Biden administration exhibits no pangs of conscience, much less a willingness to change policy. Even the eruption of internecine fighting among U.S. clients in Syria does not appear to be having a meaningful impact. The architects of America’s imperial debacle in that country seem determined to stay the course. U.S. policymakers who are guilty of such appalling cruelty deserve thoroughgoing contempt from all decent people.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also held various senior policy posts during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).