Is the Pentagon's Buildup in Northeast Syria a Message to Russia, Turkey, Damascus, or Someone Else?

On 18 September, the US Central Command announced that it had taken a series of measures aimed at ensuring the safety and security of US-led coalition forces in north-eastern Syria. Mark Sleboda, a US military veteran and international affairs and security analyst, has explained who the major addressees of the Pentagon’s move are.

“The United States has deployed Sentinel radar, increased the frequency of US fighter patrols over US forces, and deployed Bradley Fighting Vehicles to augment US forces in the Eastern Syria Security Area (ESSA)”, a Department of Defence (DOD) statement said, highlighting that “the US does not seek conflict with any other nation in Syria, but will defend Coalition forces if necessary”.

On 21 September, US Special Representative Ambassador James Jeffrey travelled to northeast Syria, currently occupied by US-led coalition forces, and held separate meetings with leaders of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Kurdish political parties, vowing to provide them with support and protection.

Both the Pentagon’s military buildup and Jeffrey’s rare visit to al-Hasakah came on the heels of sporadic attacks against US troops and proxies, the SDF, in the northeast of the Arab Republic. In August, Arab tribal leaders in Deir ez-Zor Governorate issued an ultimatum to the US-led coalition demanding that they withdraw from the region within a month, while Aleppo tribal representatives signalled support for a Syrian popular resistance against the “occupiers”. Exacerbating tensions, in late August, a US armoured car collided with a Russian military vehicle in north-eastern Syria, leaving several American troops injured. NBC News claimed that it was the latter incident that triggered the Pentagon’s military deployment in Syria to “discourage the Russian military from crossing into the eastern security area” controlled by the US and the SDF.

Sputnik: It was reported that the US has beefed up its presence in the region by sending nearly 100 additional troops to the already-stationed 500 American soldiers as well as deploying six armoured Bradley Fighting Vehicles, radar, and more fighter jets. What is behind the move, in your opinion? What message does it send, and who are the major addressees?

Mark Sleboda: The additional rather small US deployment of troops following [the collision of the US and Russian vehicles] is first and foremost about US domestic politics. The Trump administration is making a token political effort in a tight re-election race to look like he is “doing something”, taking “some action” against Russia in response to this military deconfliction incident which dominated US headlines for a week. Presenting Trump as soft on Russia, if not an actual puppet of the Kremlin, and not willing to defend US troops from Putin, is, absurdly enough, one of the Democrat’s major election campaign scare tactics.

Only secondarily is the message intended for the Russian government, the Syrian government, and allied Iranian-backed forces in east Syria - not to challenge the remaining illegal US military occupation and its proxy regime in parts of Syria east of the Euphrates River. However, this warning can certainly also be understood by the Erdogan government in Turkey, as well, which still threatens the US's Kurdish proxies.

Even after this reinforcement, the US occupation force in east Syria remains rather modest, supposedly only some 600 troops total scattered about a number of Syrian oil fields, but the message is clear – that if it is pressed, the Pentagon is prepared and capable of injecting more troops into Syria, despite Trump’s rhetoric about withdrawing.

Sputnik: Could the deployment of additional US troops change the dynamic on the ground as Russia and Turkey are solving the Idlib issue and Damascus is taking steps to get around US sanctions and restore control over Syria’s sovereign territory?

Mark Sleboda: Less than a hundred additional US troops with a handful of APCs deployed to an enormous area is certainly not going to change the military dynamic on the ground. It is not going to provide US forces with any substantial reinforcement or deterrent compared to the size of its potential Russian, Syrian government and Turkish enemies in the theatre. It is a symbolic gesture, a message and a warning, and a rather insignificant one at that.

Trump has made clear his desire to withdraw the US military from Syria, even if the Pentagon has dragged its feet and finagled a few hundred troops still on the ground. Russia and the Syrian government are not going to stop using whatever pressure they can, short of direct conflict, to push the US to withdraw its remaining occupation force.

Likewise, Turkish forces and their Islamist proxies are not going to stop their continuing low-level hostilities against the US’ Kurdish proxies in east Syria as well. It has certainly not escaped notice, not only the small size of the additional deployment, but its expiration date – it is only currently scheduled for 90 days, expiring right when Donald Trump’s current presidential term does.

Sputnik: How could the anti-American and anti-SDF resistance which is increasingly growing among Arab tribal militias in north-eastern Syria affect the US military deployment?

Mark Sleboda: The potential for a local Arab tribal uprising in east Syria against the US and their Kurdish proxies, is real and a greater real security threat to US occupation forces remaining in the area than all the jockeying and road rage incidents involving Russian and Syrian government forces could ever present. Certainly the message of a small additional US deployment is meant to be understood by the large Akidat tribe, as well as the Bakara, Jubur, Bu Layl, Al Bu Saraya and Juheich that are simmering under US-Kurdish occupation. However this is likely a third consideration and motivation, after US domestic politics and then the small deterrent message to Russia, the Syrian government in Damascus, Iran, and Turkey.

The reinforcement is simply too small to have much of an intimidating or deterrent effect over the local Arab tribes, which represent the majority population of the area. The US is obviously still counting on being able to co-opt, buy off the tribal elites, and play divide and conquer to dampen unrest.

Sputnik: Trump has repeatedly said that he wants US troops out of Syria, but they continue to maintain a presence there, with the Pentagon sending additional forces. What’s behind Washington’s self-contradictory strategy, in your opinion?

Mark Sleboda: The contradiction between Trump’s rhetoric and perhaps even genuine wishes concerning a withdrawal of US forces from Syria and the reality – that the US occupation force is still there on the ground four years later, is due entirely to political pressure from the Pentagon, security services, majority sentiment across the aisle in Congress, and neocons from within Trump’s own administration that sees such a move as geopolitical weakness and refuses to do so. President Trump has quite obviously had very little personal control over “his own” foreign and military policy, despite that being the major presidential powers prerogative under the US Constitution. The “Deep State”, or unelected permanent US national security bureaucracy, clearly has the real power in that regard.

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