IntelBrief: What Comes Next in Syria?
Bottom Line Up Front:
- The fight against the Islamic State is now sidelined as geopolitical and regional rivalries play out across the Syrian landscape.
- An intra-NATO conflict is only heightening the state of confused political and military aims in Syria.
- In Manbij, where two ‘coalition personnel’ were recently killed, the fighting is not between the Assad regime and rebels but between a Turkish force and a Syrian Kurdish force heavily supported by the U.S.
- President Trump stated during a March 29 speech that the U.S. was leaving Syria ‘very soon.’
The years-long United States policy position in Syria—that it must fight against the so-called Islamic State, but not engage in the larger civil war plaguing the nation—has shifted. In the complicated conflict, including most of the world’s major powers, the U.S. now leads a coalition that is being attacked by another NATO member, Turkey, which is predominantly concerned with the Kurds along its southern border. France, another NATO member, is reportedly sending troops to support the U.S. in the area of Manbij, where, even among the presence of U.S. military, Turkey is threatening to assault Kurdish troops.
On March 30, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the deaths of two ‘coalition personnel’ and the wounding of five others from an IED blast in the Sheikh Aqil district of Manbij. Unconfirmed reports stated one of the dead was a U.S. service member. The area of Manbij, near the Turkish border, is one of the more sensitive hotspots in northern Syria, where the fighting is not between the Assad regime and rebels, but between a Turkish force and a Syrian Kurdish force heavily supported by the U.S. Manbij is now controlled by a U.S.-supported Kurdish-Arab military council, and the U.S. has a visible presence in the area. The area was freed from Islamic State control in 2016 and is now ‘ground zero’ for what remains of the U.S. strategy in Syria.
That strategy has centered on dismantling the Islamic State and preventing its resurgence. That fight has been sidelined by larger regional issues that include domestic priorities of Turkey and Iran, and the demands of the region’s Kurdish population. Various speeches made by Defense Secretary Mattis and former Secretary of State Tillerson stated that the U.S. was preparing to stay in Syria for the foreseeable future–more so to block Iranian influence than to ensure the Islamic State does not regain enough strength to once again threaten the region.
The U.S. is already stretching its proclaimed justification for being in Syria–which is predicated upon the 2001 AUMF to fight the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001, attacks. An intra-NATO conflict is only heightening the state of confused political and military aims in Syria. Adding to the chaos, President Trump stated during a March 29 speech ‘We’re coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon—very soon we’re coming out.’
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