US Interests in Syria

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General overview. War on terror

The Syrian conflict has been going on for more than 8 years starting from March 2011. Through the course of time the civil war turned into a place of the clash of interests for dozens of states, military unions and terrorist organizations. Throughout those years, according to different calculations, around 80.000 people died and 1.4 million were forced to migrate because of the civil war and various military operations. According to the report of Soufan Group (TSG) fighters from at least 81 states are fighting in Syria, including Western countries such as the USA, Britain and France, the majority of foreign fighters coming from Saudi Arabia,  Jordan and Algeria [1]. Back in 2013, US president Barack Obama noted that the US has a moral obligation as well as national security interests in Syria. First, to stop the slaughter in Syria and second, to ensure that there is a stable Syria that is representative of all the Syrian people, and is not creating chaos for its neighbors [2]. 

The US entry into Syria was connected with the fact that in June 2014 Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist organization announced the formation of a Caliphate in the territories of Syria and Iraq. ISIS became the most powerful and organizes terrorist organization in human history. Most of its funding ISIS received from the sale of the natural and other resources of the occupied territories, earning approximately $2 million a day through crude oil sales in the black market in neighbouring countries.  As many as eleven oil fields in Iraq and Syria came under the control of ISIS. Oil is not the only stolen resource ISIS has benefited from. Large parts of Iraq’s most fertile provinces were under ISIS control, which accounted for 40 percent of Iraq’s wheat crop. It is believed that the group also made about $12 million every month through kidnappings for ransom, extortion, bank robberies, collection of local taxes, and smuggling of antiquities out of Iraq to be sold in Turkey. Besides, ISIS got control of large quantities of US-manufactured weapons left by the capitulating Iraqi military[3]. In September 2014 Barack Obama started air campaign against ISIS in Syria a month after starting airstrikes in Iraq. In 2015 US land forces entered Syria at first being comprised of only 50 people, this number grew into more than 2000 [4]. 

So, the US entry into Syria was officially connected with the aim to destroy ISIS and for reaching this goal US became the leader of Coalition forces against ISIS, which included more than 60 states. In comparison with Obama’s policy, the current US President Donald Trump doesn’t think that it is US moral obligation to be in Syria. He thinks the US has wasted money in the Middle East on unsuccessful nation-building, and that regional partners do and pay too little. As early as 2013, during a heated discussion about the then-expected Obama military retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Trump tweeted “Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.” Trump knows his political constituency does not want to see the US in another ground war in the Middle East. Trump wants to fix US infrastructure, not pay for other countries’ reconstruction with American taxpayers’ money [5]. By the way, during his campaign Trump accused Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton for failing the Middle East Policy, which became a fertile soil for the formation of ISIS. 

After January 20, 2017 taking the office of the US President, Trump rethought US policy in Syria. More specifically, 2018 US interests in Syria were the followings:

  1. The destruction of ISIS
  2. The political resolution of the Civil War in Syria
  3. The withdrawal of Iranian led forces from Syria
  4. Assad’s removal from power [6]

One of the main goals of President Trump was to withdraw US troops from Syria as soon as possible, which brought serious opposition on the side of several officials of his administration. Specifically,  then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in January 2018 that “the United States will maintain a military presence in Syria focused on ensuring that ISIS cannot re-emerge’’. Shortly afterwards in March, 2018 President Trump fired Secretary Tillerson and later stated that US troops in Syria would be “coming out of Syria, like, very soon [7].’’ On December 19, 2018 Trump ordered to withdraw US troops from Syria. That decision gave rise to much criticism and led to the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis [8]. National Security Adviser John Bolton contradicted Trump’s decision on the immediate withdrawal of troops with his announcement that the US would not withdraw unless ISIS was completely defeated and US got Turkey’s assurances that the Kurds in Northern Syria would be safe [9]. It is not a coincidence that a month after the troops withdrawal by Trump, Bolton resigned, and Trump connected the resignation with the fact that he, ‘’disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions [10].’’ In essence, Boltons disagreement with the conditions of withdrawal of the troops from Syria was one of their controversies. 

At the beginning of January only the military equipment started to be taken out but not the army and at the end of February the White House announced that the United States will only leave 400 troops in Syria in contrast with Trump’s  announcement made in December. 

The Need of Reducing Russian and Iranian Influence 

The ties between Syrian regime and Iranian government besides being of political nature has also religious elements. Though most of the Syrian population are Sunni, Assad’s family are Alawites, which is a part of Shia Islam. It’s not a coincidence that Iranian regime is supporting the Assad regime, which is also connected with religious aspect. Ilan Berman, Vice-President for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, says, “Syria and Iran both have a common goal, which is not to be the next Iraq.” The two countries agreed to a mutual defense treaty in 2004 [11].

At the same time Syria is one of the exceptional allies in the region for Iran, and in that context Assad gets more significant importance for Iran. In the early stages of the conflict Iran’s involvement was limited to providing the Syrian administration with technical and financial assistance, mainly through the Quds Force. In late 2012, those forces played a crucial role in the creation of the National Defence Forces (NDF). The latter is a paramilitary organisation, which assists the regular army and musters around 100.000 fighters from various religious sects. Between 2011-2013, when the situation in Syria was deteriorating, Iran sent members of its Law Enforcement Force and IRGC Ground Forces (IRGC was designated by Trump as terrorist organization [12]) to support the Syrian army. Until April 2016, the total number of IRGC and Iranian paramilitary personnel operating in Syria was estimated at between 6,500 and 9,200 [13].

For the United States and its allies, particularly for Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran is the biggest challenge in the Middle East, especially taking into account the US efforts to reduce Iran’s influence in the region. 

It’s natural that the presence of Iran in Syria not only disturbs the USA but also the latter’s strategic partner Israel. The Isreali officials consider the deployment of Iranian army in Syria, specifically in the southwestern part which is close to Northern borders of Israel, as a direct and serious threat to Israel’s security. This is an additional impetus for Israel to take clear steps and demand from its strategic partner to secure its continuous presence in Syria [14]. In this context, Israelis worry that the withdrawal of US forces from Syria could lead to a resurgence of Islamic State and give Iran more freedom of movement in gaining a leading position in the region [15].

It’s worth mentioning that during the Syrian conflict the United States acknowledged the Golan heights as part of Israel. The Golan provides Israel with a strong defensive-offensive position and vantage point to observe military movements across the border. On the other hand, Syrian control over the Golan would provide it with strategic heights overlooking Israel. Israel says Iran and Hezbollah pose a threat and the Golan provides a security barrier [16].

Both USA and Russia claim that their presence in Syria is connected with their efforts to reduce terrorism. As Vladimir Putin said, “The collapse of Syria’s official authorities will only mobilize terrorists. Right now, instead of undermining them, we must revive them, strengthening state institutions in the conflict zone [17].” Russian support in Syria especially increased after the events of Arab Spring. The overthrow of Libya’s long-term leader, Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011, Russia saw as something directly undermining its influence in the Arab world because Russia had a long-term relationship with Gaddafi and had several billion dollars’ worth of arms sales with Libya. After his defeat Moscow’s only ally in the region remained Syria and Assad. It’s of principal importance for Moscow not to have regime change in Syria through foreign powers and  to maintain the territorial integrity of Syria. Syrian conflict was the first conflict after the Cold War where Russia was involved outside the Post-Soviet region. At the same time this conflict became a theatre to test out their military equipment and capabilities which gave them an opportunity to send a message to the rest of the world that Russia is a capable, modern military player [18].

Russia explains its involvement in the Syrian conflict with its desire to defeat radical islamists, who might spread to Russia’s neighbouring states ultimately reaching borders of Russia.  The problem is that a significant number of fighters in ISIS are from post-Soviet countries, including Russian citizens. However, in comparison with Wasington which differentiates ISIS and other anti-Assad forces, Moscow does not make such differentiation and completely  supports Assad. Besides its war against terrorists, Russia substantiates its presence in Syria with the fact that it is Syria’s official authorities who officially requested their involvement and active support, unlike other states who are in the territory of Syria illegally [19].

During the 8 years of Syrian conflict Russia and Syria have developed strong economic ties. Specifically, Syrian government invited Russian Gazprom and Lukoil to rebuild and develop the infrastructure, oil and gas pipelines. Since the beginning of the war agreements worth billions of dollars have been signed in the spheres of trade and energy to enhance the cooperation. In 2016 the parliament passed a law which allowed Russian companies to run the Syrian energy sector [20].

Despite these close economic ties the sanctions against Syrian authorities seriously affect the Russian and Iranian investments. The American pressure on Russia and Iran intensified when US Congress passed ‘’Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act’’ allowing the US administration to impose  sanctions on foreign entities trading and financing the Syrian regime [21].

The Escalation of the US-Turkey Relations in Syria

 Turkish-led forces have occupied and administered some parts of northern Syria since 2016, and Turkey’s chief objective has been to thwart the PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from establishing an autonomous area along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. Turkey has considered the YPG and its political counterpart, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to be the top threat to Turkish security because of Turkish concerns that YPG/PYD gains have emboldened the PKK in Turkey. Turkey has considers the YPG a similar terroristic organization as ISIS. Neither Turkey nor Syria wants to have a Kurdish state in the territory of their states [23].  The YPG/YPJ is the predominant group in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and was a U.S. ally until recently, fighting the Islamic State (IS) in Syria [24]. The situation intensified when Trump declared the withdrawal of US forces from Syria by stating, “The United States was supposed to be in Syria for 30 days, that was many years ago. We stayed and got deeper and deeper into battle with no aim in sight. [25]”

In spite of the decision to withdraw American forces from Syria, US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper declared that some US troops will remain to protect the oil fields positioned in strategic areas to deny ISIS access to those vital resources. The US military mission included denying any Russian or Syrian government forces access to the oilfields. The Secretary of Defence stated that the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) relied on that oil income to fund its fighters, including the ones guarding prisons that hold captured ISIS soldiers [26]. 

Trump’s announcement on troop withdrawal followed a phone call with the president of Turkey Erdogan. Interestingly, before Trump’s similar announcement in 2018, Trump again had a phone call with Turkish president. It was a move which in fact paved the way for Turkey to assault Kurdish forces in Syria. That was followed by operation ‘’Peace spring’’ in north east of Syria with the excuse to establish a safe zone for 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey [27]. Trump reacted to this act by threatening to “totally destroy and obliterate” the Turkish economy if Turkey did anything that he considers “to be off limits”. Later on, there was an announced that sanctions would be imposed on Turkey [28].

To prevent the further escalation of the situation the US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Turkey. After nine hours of meetings and negotiations Vice President announced a ceasefire [29]. The deal was for a 5-day cease-fire, during which the Kurdish-led forces could pull back and Turkey could freely invade the adjacent areas to form the buffer zone. According to the terms of the deal all Turkish military operations under the recent offensive known as ‘’Operation Peace Spring’’ will pause during that time, and the operation itself will come to an end upon the completion of the Kurdish withdrawal. Pence said a safe zone between the two sides would be established [30]. After the deal Trump lifted Turkey sanctions imposed on October 14 [31]. A 6-hour meeting between Turkish and Russian presidents followed in Sochi. As a result of these negotiations the sides agreed on 10 principal points. Turkish President Erdogan said that a deal has been reached with Russia for Kurdish fighters to withdraw from a Turkish-ruled “safe zone” in northeast Syria within 150 hours, after which Ankara and Moscow will run joint patrols around the area [32]. According to some assessments, the Russian-Turkish deal diminished American influence in Syria. With President Trump’s announcement of US troop withdrawal from Syria, Russia has stepped in to fill the void [33].

On October 27, Donald Trump made an announcement about the death of ISIS founder and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [34]. On October 29, the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s number one replacement became known [35]. Baghdadi’s death was a victory for Trump and his whole team of National security, who had been fighting for years to find the world’s number one terrorist. According to one senior US official, “Turkey did not provide any assistance in this operation and he (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) was located right next to their border [36]”. This was also a personal victory for Trump, as his predecessor and political opponent Barack Obama’s administration managed to defeat another terrorist organization leader- Osama bin Laden. 

Such tense situation in Syria that has been going on years is beneficial for almost all sides of the conflict with the exception of Kurds who got no tangible results after years of fight and had more than 11.000 victims in their fight against ISIS and were massacred during the Turkish operation in Syria. Russia reached its goal, that is not to allow the overthrow of Assad in Syria by the foreign powers and to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria. Naturally, both Assad himself  and his other ally Islamic Republic of Iran had the same priorities. Turkey got its preferred safe zone along its border with Syria, where it would settle Syrian refugees loyal to Turkey, mainly ethnic Turks, that had found shelter in Turkey.

As for American side, not only does Trump withdraw US troops from Syria, the necessity of which he had spoken repeatedly, but also celebrates victory over ISIS, which was the main proclaimed goal of US involvement in Syria. At the same time, Trump considers it to be a diplomatic victory that he could assist Turkey and Kurds to reach a deal and Kurds left the regions alongside Turkish border without serious human losses.

[1] Basit, Abdul. “Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria – Why So Many?” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, Vol.  6, Issue no. 9 (2014), 4-8.

[2]  Remarks by President Obama and President Park of South Korea in a Joint Press Conference,, (26.11.2019).

[3] Ibid

[4] A Look at US Involvement in Syria’s Civil War,, (26.11.2019).

[5]Parello-Plesner J., Post-Conflict Stabilization in Syria and the Potential Impact of U.S. Military Withdrawal, Hudson Institute, May 2018, 12p.

[6] Barron R., Barnes J., Trump Policy in the Middle East: Syria, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, Issue Brief, July 2018, 6p.

[7] Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, Congressional Research Service, Updated March 25, 2019, 44p.

[8] Szénási Endre, US Withdrawal from Syria: Trump’s Biggest Single Gift to Putin? December 2018, 10p.

[9] Syria conflict: Bolton says US withdrawal is conditional,, (26.11.2019).


[11] Syria, Iran, and the Mideast Conflict,, (26.11.2019).

[12]Statement from the President on the Designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, , (26.11.2019).

[13] Ansari Ali, Tabrizi B.A., The View From Tehran and Understanding Iran’s Role in the Syrian Conflict, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, Occasional Paper, August 2016, 3-9pp.

[14] Iran and Israel: Tension Over Syria, Congressional Research Service, Updated June 5, 2019, 2p.

[15] Israel Voices Concern Over US Pullout From Syria,, (26.11.2019).

[16] Golan Heights: Why it matters to US, Israel and Syria,, (26.11.2019).

[17] Stent A., Putin’s Power Play in Syria, How to Respond to Russia’s Intervention, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2016, pp. 106-113.

[18] Why does Russia support Syria and President Assad?, (26.11.2019).

[19] Assad Makes Unannounced Trip to Moscow to Discuss Syria With Putin,, (26.11.2019).

[20] Covington S.R., The Meaning of Russia’s Campaign in Syria, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, December 2015, 10p.

[21]Hatahet S., Russia and Iran: Economic Influence in Syria, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House, March 2019, 24p.

[22] Zanotti J., Thomas C., Turkey: Background, U.S. Relations, and Sanctions in Brief, Congressional Research Service, Updated November 8, 2019, 23p.

[23] Khan U. H., Khan W., Syria: History, The Civil War and Peace Prospects, Journal of Political Studies, Vol. 24, Issue – 2, 2017, pp. 587-601.

[24] Ibid.


[26] US military envisions broad defence of Syrian oilfields,, (26.11.2019).

[27]  Tank P., Turkey’s Geopolitical Maelstrom,, (26.11.2019)

[28] Brown F.Z., Trump Has Managed to Make Bad Policy Choices on Syria Even Worse,, (26.11.2019).

[29] Inside Mike Pence’s 9 hours in Turkey,, (26.11.2019).

[30] Trump celebrates ‘great day for civilization’ as Pence, Pompeo secure Syria cease-fire agreement,, (26.11.2019).

[31] Turkey Syria offensive: Trump lifts Turkey sanctions after deal,, (26.11.2019).

[32] Turkey, Russia reach deal for YPG move out of Syria border area,, (26.11.2019.)

[33] In Syria, Russian-Turkish Deal is a Game Changer on the Ground,, (26.11.2019).

[34] Remarks by President Trump on the Death of ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,, (26.11.2019).

[35][36] Baghdadi Is Dead, but ISIS Remains Emboldened Since Trump’s Drawdown,, (26.11.2019).