Russian Military Could Force The U.S. Out of Syria, Army Official Says

The head of Special Forces said Friday that Russia had established a more credible foothold than the U.S. in Syria, and that Moscow could use this influence to essentially expel his forces.

Addressing a security conference at the Aspen Institute, Special Operations Command chief Army General Raymond Thomas said that, while counterterrorism remained a priority for his forces, international law could prevent the U.S. from maintaining a long-term presence in Syria, where its intervention has been declared illegal by the government. Russia is also involved in the fight against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and other jihadists in Syria, but entered at the request of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, something that Thomas said could allow Moscow to make a solid case for the U.S.'s departure.

Related: U.S., Russia and Iran battle to build bases in Syria as ISIS falls

"Here's the conundrum: We are operating in the sovereign country of Syria. The Russians, their stalwarts, their backstoppers have already uninvited the Turks from Syria. We're a bad day away from the Russians saying, 'Why are you still in Syria, U.S.?,'" Thomas said. 

"If the Russians play that card, we could want to stay and have no ability to do it," he added.

RTX30GQ1 Russian soldiers, on armored vehicles, patrol a street in Aleppo, Syria, February 2017. The Syrian military's successful recapture of Aleppo has widely been considered a turning point in the war and demonstrated how Russia's support was crucial to Assad's efforts to reestablish control over areas lost to rebels and jihadists. Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

The U.S. and Russia are both battling ISIS in Syria, but they back different factions that hold opposing views on Syria's political future. The U.S. backs the Syrian Democratic Forces, which Thomas said Special Forces helped name in order to distance themselves from the Kurdish nationalist People's Protection Units (YPG). Thomas also confirmed that the CIA has  cut ties with other Syrian rebel groups that have attempted to overthrow Assad since 2011. Russia and Iran support the Syrian military and its allies, which reject the national aspirations of Kurdish groups, the ultraconservative Sunni Muslim ideology of jihadists and calls for political upheaval by the opposition.

Assad, along with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, has continually demanded that the U.S. and other countries opposed to the Syrian government respect the country's national sovereignty. While President Donald Trump appeared to adhere to this view more so than his predecessor, he took a more aggressive approach in April when he ordered an unprecedented attack on a Syrian air force base, claiming it was the origin of a chemical weapons strike on civilians days prior. Assad and Putin have denied these allegations, and the legality of the strike has come into question among experts.

RTS193DK A U.S army soldier holds a gun as he stands guard next to an armored vehicle as Brett McGurk, U.S. envoy to the coalition against Islamic State militant group (ISIS), visits the town of Tabqa, Syria June 29, 2017. The U.S. is also involved in the fight against ISIS, but backs a different faction from Russia not associated with the Syrian government. Rodi Said/Reuters

The U.S. says it does not intend to target pro-government forces, but has done so on a number of occasions, arguing self-defense of its unilaterally declared "deconfliction zone." A series of attacks on fighters supportive of Assad in the country's south and the shooting down of Syrian military jet in the north have been met with fury by Russia, which went as far as to say last month it would begin targeting U.S-led coalition aircraft. Thomas alluded to this and other incidents between pro-government and U.S.-backed forces, calling them "close calls" that could ultimately lead to Russia questioning the U.S.'s presence in Syria once ISIS is defeated.

The two powers have pursued an uneasy rapprochement in recent weeks and have negotiated a cease-fire between the military and rebels in the country's southwest. Tensions remains, however, as the Syrian Democratic Forces and Syria's armed forces dislodge ISIS from territory in and around its de facto capital of Raqqa, establishing their own presence along the way.