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.