The US House of Representatives on Thursday voted down a bill that would have required the White House to withdraw US forces from eastern Syria.
There are currently about 900 troops in Syria, most of them in the east with the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and some at Tanf Garrison, near the Jordanian border. They are there to carry on the fight against ISIS. Had the bill passed, ostensibly it would have meant the US would need to withdraw in 180 days.
The bill was voted down by 321-103. This may look like a solid bipartisan majority, but it is clear that there are scores of politicians in Congress who are skeptical of the US’s continued role.
The Trump administration tried to withdraw US forces from Syria twice, in late 2018 and 2019. Both decisions led to catastrophe, as Turkey invaded parts of Syria and forced hundreds of thousands of Kurds and other minorities, including Yazidis and Christians, to flee their homes.
While the US has been in Syria to fight ISIS, NATO-member Turkey has also sought to play a role in Syria, often against the US role. Although Turkey does not openly back ISIS, it enabled many foreigners to cross Turkey in 2012-2014, and tens of thousands of those foreigners came to help ISIS. In addition, Ankara has worked with extremist groups, such as HTS in Idlib province, a group that was linked to al-Qaeda.
What withdrawing would mean
A US withdrawal from Syria would not only open the way for another potential Turkish invasion targeting Kurdish areas. It would also lead to Russia and Iran moving into eastern Syria and expanding Iran’s role in the region, giving it even more control over the strategic Middle Euphrates River Valley area. Iran already uses the western bank of the Euphrates River to move munitions from Iraq to Albukamal and onward toward Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
In the US, the Syrian war is seen as problematic on the far Right and the far Left. Critics on the Right think this is another “endless war” where the US wastes “blood and treasure” for no reason. There also are pro-Ankara voices who want to turn over Syria to Turkey or even to Russia.
The far-right, anti-Syria voices tend to want the US to bring troops home as a matter of policy, one that is isolationist and doesn’t view the upkeep as the responsibility of the US. The left-leaning critics also think the US should stop meddling in the Middle East, though from a different premise. Some of those critics may even prefer the Assad regime or Iran returning to parts of Syria.
The War Powers Resolution in Congress was introduced by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida).
“The Republican from Florida used expedited procedures laid out under the War Powers Act to force a floor vote on the bill, which would have required the Biden administration to withdraw the approximately 900 troops stationed in Syria within six months,” Defense News reported. “Democrats from the Congressional Progressive Caucus joined libertarian and America First-aligned Republicans in rallying behind the Gaetz resolution but fell short of the votes needed to pass it amid opposition from leaders in both parties.”
According to Gaetz, “Congress has never authorized the use of military force in Syria… The United States is currently not in a war with or against Syria, so why are we conducting dangerous military operations there? President [Joe] Biden must remove all US armed forces from Syria.”
US forces are in Syria as part of the overall war on terrorism that began in 2001. Critics see this apparently endless conflict as continuing mission creep. For instance, the US tried to leave Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 to fight ISIS, and then it went to Syria to do the same. The US withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, and Congress has been hearing testimony about that withdrawal.
The bill was “voted down on Wednesday night with 47 Republicans joining 56 Democrats in support of the bill,” The Intercept reported. “Despite the resolution’s defeat, it was just the beginning in a string of efforts to end US military operations abroad, according to its sponsor.”
Some of the critics of the Syria mission feel that the mission creep will end up in Ukraine eventually, the report said. Other critics think the mission is not achievable because the US hasn’t spelled out what the “enduring” defeat of ISIS will actually mean.
There are thousands of ISIS members detained in Syria, being held in facilities operated by the SDF. In essence, the mission in Syria, though it involves some raids against ISIS holdouts, is mostly about empowering the SDF to secure ISIS detainees. The US doesn’t have a full plan for rehabilitating eastern Syria, nor for reconstruction or long-term stability.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus also opposes the US role in eastern Syria.
“This measure to remove unauthorized deployment of US Armed Forces in Syria unless a specific statutory authorization is enacted within six months is largely consistent with previous bipartisan efforts,” it said in a statement.
The bipartisan nature of the opposition is fascinating because there have been very few US casualties in eastern Syria. In fact, the US-SDF partnership has been highly successful.
Nevertheless, no matter the success, there is opposition. This highlights how it isn't about the US losing forces in Syria; it’s more about America’s role in the region and in the world at large. Some critics want the US to leave many places in the world. They don’t see the advantage of having a footprint or even partners and allies.
Some of these cynics think the US needs to have a Realist foreign policy and that the US has no “allies,” only “interests.” This does not bode well in general for friends and allies of the US abroad who constantly must face being abandoned.
For Kurds and minorities in places such as Syria and Iraq, this is particularly problematic. Powerful states in the region, including Turkey and Iran, generally stand by their proxies, such as Hezbollah or Syrian groups in Idlib. By contrast, the SDF has to wonder each year if it will continue to have US partners.
On the other side of the coin, the bipartisan support for the US role in Syria shows that enough members of Congress understand the need to defeat ISIS and support partners and friends abroad. This has larger implications because many countries, including Israel and Ukraine, count on US support.
The Biden administration has said the US is “back” in the world. The visits to the region by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley are part of that image of being “back” in the Middle East.