The nearly eight-year-old American mission in the country has taken a back burner recently, but the Pentagon’s top general, in a rare visit, says it remains worth the risk.
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Gen. Mark A. Milley visiting a U.S. military base in Northeast Syria on Saturday.
NORTHEAST SYRIA — By day, First Lt. Kamal Alsawafy is providing security for Iraqi refugees as they move from the crowded Al Hol detention camp here to transportation back to Iraq. His M4 Carbine strapped to his side, he is a member of a Michigan National Guard unit deployed to try to prevent the revival of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
By night — 3 a.m. local time — Lieutenant Alsawafy is a councilman on the Dearborn City Council in Michigan, teleconferencing in from his laptop at a secret American military base to cast his vote for speed bumps in local neighborhoods (in favor), or more handicap accessibility for city parks (also in favor).
America still has more than 900 troops, and hundreds more contractors, in Syria, working with Kurdish fighters to make sure there is no resurgence of the Islamic State, which was ostensibly defeated as a caliphate in 2019, after five years wreaking havoc across Iraq and Syria.
But with the Biden administration’s focus shifting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a potential future conflict with China, the counter-Islamic State military mission in Syria has become something of a back-burner issue. The mission has only received greater attention when Iranian-backed militias or Islamic State militants attack the American troops who rotate in and out, for nine months at a time, across a handful of bases here.
On Saturday, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made his first visit to Syria in that role, traveling to this Kurdish-controlled territory to assess the state of America’s nearly eight-year-old military mission. For General Milley, the unannounced trip was a chance, he said, to figure out firsthand what value the mission in Syria still holds for American security.
He said he believed that U.S. troops and their Kurdish Syrian partners were making lasting progress toward ensuring that the Islamic State did not reconstitute itself.
“I also wanted to check on force protection,” General Milley told reporters traveling with him, “because we have soldiers and Marines and airmen who are distributed along the northeast section of Syria and they’re exposed to indirect fire attack.”
For the Biden administration, it is a balancing act. The president has made clear that he has no interest in continuing the so-called forever wars that were part of the national psyche for the first 20 years of this century. He withdrew American troops from Afghanistan, has kept them out of Ukraine, and has instructed Pentagon planners to focus on Asia and the potential for great-power conflicts with Russia and China. Those long conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the administration maintains, are a thing of the past.
Except for here in Syria, where American troops are consistently in harm’s way, military officials said, with dozens of attacks launched at or near bases in the past year alone. U.S. and partner forces with a coalition that includes the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces have been working together to keep pressure on Islamic State militants and to ensure that detained fighters do not end up back on the battlefield.
“Those rocket attacks are distractions from the real problem of ISIS,” said Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane, the commander of the Iraq and Syria effort, referring to the Islamic State. “Our No. 1 priority is the enduring defeat of ISIS,” he added.
General Milley said it was important that the United States continue to pay attention to the region even as it reorients itself toward Asia, because the terror threat would grow in the absence of an American troop presence. “Unless you support and devote the correct amount of resources to it, things will get worse,” he said. “This is not the same as China and Russia — those are much bigger and broader.”
But, he added, “if you completely ignore and turn your back, then you’re setting the conditions for a resurgence.”
General Milley has been on a weeklong trip through Europe and the Middle East. He was in Israel on Friday for meetings with his counterparts on the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank. He also attended a war games session for Ukrainian military officers in Germany.
In northeast Syria, the Kurdish Syrian forces conduct targeted raids against Islamic State members. They also guard more than 10,000 imprisoned Islamic State fighters, while the Pentagon and American troops provide air support, intelligence and reconnaissance.
The U.S. troops conduct operations as well, but those are fewer and farther between. They also provide security for the women and children, many of them relatives of Islamic State members who died fighting or were detained, who want to be repatriated. The Biden administration and the Iraqi government say they have come to value repatriation as a means to get people out of the camps, where they are vulnerable to being indoctrinated by the Islamic State.
ImageGeneral Milley (left), Maj. Gen. Matthew Matthew McFarlane (right) and First Lt. Kamal Alsawafy (center) in Northeast Syria on Saturday. The lieutenant immigrated to Michigan with his parents from Iraq years ago.Credit…Helene Cooper/The New York Times
Lieutenant Alsawafy, 35, who immigrated to Michigan with his parents from Iraq in the 1990s, speaks Arabic and is a fitting American officer to partner with the Iraqi military to provide security for the chartered buses of people returning to Iraq from the refugee camps. He was just months into his term on the Dearborn City Council when he was called to deploy overseas.
He arrived in Syria in December, but promised Dearborn residents that he would continue to fulfill his council duties from abroad. That has meant adopting what he called a “Zelensky,” after President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine: joining City Council meetings by videoconference from a combat zone, clad in an olive T-shirt.