Tan­gled fight in Syria poses new dan­gers to US in­ter­ests


BEIRUT (Los An­ge­les Times/ TNS) – With US goals ex­pand­ing and Is­lamic State near­ing de­feat, the tan­gled seven-year war in Syria is grow­ing more com­pli­cated as Iran gains the up­per hand, Turkey be­gins a mil­i­tary of­fen­sive, and Is­rael is in­creas­ingly alarmed by threats to its se­cu­rity.

The risk of a dan­ger­ous es­ca­la­tion was clear on Tues­day with re­ports that US air strikes last week had killed sev­eral Rus­sian para­mil­i­tary con­trac­tors dur­ing an at­tack by pro-gov­ern­ment forces on a US-backed mili­tia base in east­ern Syria that housed a small num­ber of US troops.

That comes af­ter a week in which Turkey, Rus­sia, Iran and Is­rael all lost air­craft to hos­tile fire in the coun­try’s in­creas­ingly crowded skies.

What be­gan as a civil war in 2011, with US-backed rebels op­posed to Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, is now a free-for-all of out­side states try­ing to di­vide the spoils and ex­pand in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East. As­sad re­mains in power and Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies ap­pear most at risk of los­ing out, ac­cord­ing to diplo­mats, aid work­ers and other an­a­lysts.

The US role in Syria has ex­panded un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. Un­til re­cently, US pol­icy fo­cused on de­feat­ing Is­lamic State, de­liv­er­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to civil­ian com­mu­ni­ties af­ter crit­i­cal bat­tles, sup­port­ing diplo­matic ef­forts to end the con­flict. The US oth­er­wise sought to avoid a broader en­tan­gle­ment in an­other Mid­dle East war.

Last month, how­ever, the State Depart­ment an­nounced that the Pen­tagon would keep 2,000 US spe­cial op­er­a­tions troops, as well as diplo­matic teams and oth­ers, in the coun­try in­def­i­nitely to mop up the re­main­ing ter­ror­ists and to en­sure “Ira­nian in­flu­ence in Syria is di­min­ished, and Syria’s neigh­bors are se­cure,” a much murkier goal.

“Our mil­i­tary and civil­ian per­son­nel on the ground in Syria will be tar­geted, even­tu­ally,” Robert S. Ford, who left Syria in 2011 as the last US am­bas­sador to serve in Da­m­as­cus, warned Congress last week. “The Syr­ian and Ira­nian gov­ern­ments, and Rus­sia, all want us out of Syria.”

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tillerson, on a six-day mis­sion through the Mid­dle East, em­pha­sized the ef­fort to fin­ish off Is­lamic State, which has been pushed into a sliver of ter­ri­tory in east­ern Syria.

The group “re­mains a very de­ter­mined en­emy and is not yet de­feated,” Tillerson said on Tues­day in Kuwait City at a con­fer­ence ded­i­cated to rais­ing money for re­con­struc­tion in Iraq.

Bagh­dad es­ti­mates it needs $88 bil­lion to re­build from the wide­spread de­struc­tion left by Is­lamic State’s oc­cu­pa­tion of cities and towns, and the bit­ter bat­tle to eject them, which ended in De­cem­ber.

“If com­mu­ni­ties in Iraq and Syria can­not re­turn to nor­mal life, we risk the re­turn of con­di­tions that al­lowed [Is­lamic State] to take and con­trol vast ter­ri­tory,” he said.

But Tillerson of­fered no US funds for the re­con­struc­tion, urg­ing other coun­tries to foot the bill in­stead, a sign of the grow­ing frus­tra­tion at the White House with the ef­fect of for­eign aid.

On Mon­day, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump com­plained at the White House that US aid ex­pen­di­tures in the Mid­dle East were “a mis­take” and were “stupidly” spent, er­ro­neously claim­ing that the United States had spent $7 tril­lion in the re­gion since 2001.

US aid is sub­stan­tial, but far less than that. In the first decade af­ter the US-led in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003, the United States spent $60b. in what a Pen­tagon au­dit re­port later con­cluded was a largely failed ef­fort to re­build the war-torn coun­try.

With re­con­struc­tion of Syria loom­ing, Iraq has served as a dra­matic sign of what’s to come. It has es­sen­tially been bombed back a decade.

Is­lamic State’s black flags no longer fly over Iraqi towns and vil­lages. But the re­cap­ture of the vast ter­ri­tory it once held, es­pe­cially in the north and west, came at an enor­mous cost to their res­i­dents.

Months of pun­ish­ing air strikes and door-to-door fight­ing left neigh­bor­hoods in ru­ins. As the Sunni ji­hadists with­drew, they de­stroyed schools, hos­pi­tals, bridges, elec­tric­ity and water sys­tems. The United Na­tions es­ti­mated 40,000 homes were dam­aged or de­stroyed just in Mo­sul, the largest city to fall un­der Is­lamic State con­trol.

Res­i­dents are dip­ping into sav­ings, sell­ing fam­ily gold or bor­row­ing money to make needed re­pairs. But the scale of the de­struc­tion in sec­tors that suf­fered the worst of the fight­ing is over­whelm­ing.

At a meet­ing Mon­day on the side­lines of the Kuwait con­fer­ence, non­govern­men­tal groups pledged more than $330,000 in aid for Iraq. The coun­try will look to the pri­vate sec­tor to foot most of the bill, ar­gu­ing there are prof­its to be made in re­con­struc­tion.

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