The U.S. Mission in Syria is a Failure. Don't Turn it Into a Catastrophe. | Opinion

Officials confirmed that a drone attack and accompanying mortar fire targeted U.S. troops near Al-Tanf, Syria, on Wednesday. Thankfully, there were no American casualties. But given that this incident could have easily resulted in the death of U.S. troops, a bigger question needs to be asked: is it worth it?

The U.S. mission in Syria is of dubious value. Originally, the U.S. sought to use Syrian rebels as its force on the ground to combat both the Islamic State and the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. When these costly endeavors failed, U.S. military involvement expanded to advising and providing fire support for the primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as they reconquered ISIS-controlled cities.

Since then, despite ISIS losing its oil wells, its territorial control and its leadership, the U.S. presence in Syria has persisted. Mission creep has taken over, and the conditions for leaving have grown increasingly unrealistic.

Despite its rhetoric about drawdowns in 2019, the Trump administration withdrew troops only to replace them shortly thereafter. The degree of actual drawdown was paltry—from 1,000 troops to 900. And while this rhetorical theatre may be politically useful, it does nothing to fix the strategic incoherence of the U.S. mission in Syria or to safeguard American troops there.

Al-Tanf hosts a small garrison—about 200 troops. A force of this size has only limited ability to influence conditions in the country. ISIS is fragmented, and its remaining activities in Syria are clandestine. A conventional U.S. force in the middle of the Syrian desert doesn't counter that; it only presents an easy target for adversaries.

US military helicopter Syria
NORTHEASTERN SYRIA - MAY 25: A U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter takes off at sunset while transporting American troops out of a remote combat outpost known as RLZ on May 25, 2021 near the Turkish border in northeastern Syria. U.S. forces, part of Task Force WARCLUB operate from combat outposts in the area, coordinating with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in combatting residual ISIS extremists and deterring pro-Iranian militia. U.S. troops primarily use the Oshkosh M-ATV, a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle. John Moore/Getty Images

Other U.S. forces are concentrated in northeastern Syria, where they advise and assist the SDF. But given that the SDF is no longer taking cities, the support they need is minimal. Intelligence sharing doesn't require troops on the ground, nor do targeted strikes on ISIS targets.

The Syria mission's official goal is to prevent an ISIS resurgence, but this objective often plays second fiddle to containing Iranian influence. Even with U.S. troops remaining in Syria, we still see Iran entrenching its position in the country, and Israel responding with strikes. U.S. forces can't cut off Iran's supply lines to its proxies in Syria, and they have minimal deterrent value. Iran has gone unfazed; it previously targeted U.S. forces in the Al-Tanf area with drones in 2017, and its proxies likewise struck U.S. forces at an oilfield in June.

Iran's not the only foreign actor in Syria, either. Russian air and fire support to the Syrian government is considerable. Even if U.S. forces can deter the overstretched Syrians, they haven't stopped Russia from expanding its forces and influence in the country. Russian forces plowing through U.S. vehicles underscores this point. Given that there really aren't strategic benefits to staying, but there are obvious risks, we shouldn't try to double down on attempts at deterrence that are shaky at best.

It's also time to face reality: Assad has won the war. That's not new information. U.S. decision makers must deal with reality as it is, not as they wish it to be. Since arming and training anti-Assad rebels was the original intent of sending in troops, the impossibility of ousting Assad at an acceptable cost should mean that U.S. troops come home. Yet U.S. strategy remains behind the times.

The U.S. mission in Syria—in an all-too-familiar refrain after the failures of Afghanistan—has changed. A limited (albeit flawed) anti-ISIS mission has turned into an increasingly unclear and dangerous entanglement years after ISIS was denied its physical caliphate. U.S. servicemen will do whatever is asked of them, but their civilian leaders owe it to them to make sure that their sacrifices are commensurate with the benefits.

The stakes in Syria do not merit Americans dying. The mission—whatever it's billed as—doesn't protect the United States. Wednesday's drone attack could easily be the prelude to far more deadly attacks. Rather than offer apologetics for a failed mission with no set objective, U.S. decision makers should pull out of Syria before the failure becomes a catastrophe.

Geoff LaMear is a Fellow at Defense Priorities.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.