Russian forces in Syria are seeking to escalate tensions with U.S. forces there at the same time as Iranian-backed proxy groups in Iraq continue to fire rockets at U.S. facilities. This puts the White House and Pentagon in a bind. With an election looming and domestic crises on the agenda, the Trump administration has indicated it may make a decision about the U.S. mission in Syria “fairly soon” as some U.S. forces are withdrawn from Iraq. In the wake of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s successful trip to the region in August, it’s essential that Russia and Iran don’t come away looking like winners in Syria and Iraq. Threading this needle by maintaining a small U.S. footprint and keeping Iran and Russia deterred will be a difficult task.
Russian armored vehicles in Syria clashed with a U.S. patrol on August 25, injuring the crew of an American mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle. The incident happened in northeast Syria. This is a complex landscape where the U.S. withdrew from some bases and posts in October 2019 during a Turkish invasion. That crisis saw U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have been fighting ISIS, withdraw while a Russia–Turkey agreement partitioned a border area. However, the U.S. remained in many parts of eastern Syria, with the White House saying soldiers would “secure” oil fields.
The Russians, backed by the Syrian regime, have sought to undermine the U.S. role in Syria. Russia, Iran, and Turkey have condemned an “illegal deal” between a U.S. oil company and the SDF in Syria. To confront American forces, the Russians use propaganda in media and incite pro-Syrian-regime locals to protest U.S. forces. Russian patrols frequently monitor American patrols, sometimes playing cat-and-mouse on local roads, with the Russians following U.S. vehicles around or harassing them. On August 25, Moscow went one step further. Backed by two helicopters, the Russians struck a U.S. vehicle with one of their own. The helicopters buzzed the U.S. patrol at low altitude, kicking up dust, which the U.S. coalition says was abnormally aggressive behavior.
The White House said the incident was “unsafe and unprofessional” and called for deconfliction. American soldiers have a right to defend themselves, the National Security Council reiterated. Joint Chiefs head General Mark Milley spoke to Russian general Valery Gerasimov, his Russian counterpart, about the incident. Clearly the White House and Pentagon are taking this seriously, because previous incidents with the Russians haven’t reached this level of condemnation and phone calls to Moscow.
As Russian patrols harass the U.S. near Derik and Qamishli in Syria, 250 miles southwest, U.S. forces and their partners are being challenged by Iran and ISIS sleeper cells near Deir Ezzor in Syria. This is a large area, spanning roughly the distance from New York City to Washington, D.C. Iran’s goal is to infiltrate tribal areas near the Euphrates River and get tribes to protest the U.S. and SDF presence. Meanwhile, across the border in Iraq, there are weekly rocket attacks by Iranian-backed militant groups on areas where Americans are present, such as the embassy in Baghdad. In the past, when U.S. forces were killed at Camp Taji by a rocket attack, U.S. Central Command responded with airstrikes. On August 23, U.S. forces left Taji and handed it over to the Iraqi army, one of half a dozen bases handed over in the last six months.
The Russians and Iranians know that the U.S. is leaving bases in Iraq, and Russia unsurprisingly sought to end an arms embargo on Iran while Tehran brags about defeating the U.S. at the United Nations. Put it all together and it looks like a full-court press to harass the U.S. across Iraq and Syria. Does Moscow think that if it ups the cost for Washington to remain in Syria, America might pull back, as the U.S. did after Turkey’s invasion in October 2019? Certainly Iran and Russia know U.S. elections are coming up and that the administration has vowed to stop fighting endless wars in “faraway places.”
Pompeo’s trip to the Middle East in late August, during which he visited Israel, Sudan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, was intended to shore up U.S. allies and show Iran that America’s commitment is not in doubt. As the Pentagon repositions troops in Iraq, consolidating bases, moving air defense to defend against pro-Iranian attacks, and placing troops in the friendlier Kurdish region, it is essential not to let Iran or Russia think it has “won” in Iraq and Syria. Russia and Iran look like they are working in concert, sometimes even coordinating statements with Turkey, to undermine the U.S. presence. Keeping them guessing about Washington’s next moves and maintaining U.S. deterrence is essential to avoid eroding confidence in the U.S. in Iraq, Syria, and the wider region.