How the U.S. is Scrambling to Save the Mission in Syria
Last month, President Trump announced he was pulling troops from northeast Syria. Our Dispatch team made a rare visit to two American bases in eastern Syria, where military leaders are straining to interpret Trump's message on the ground.
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These Bradley fighting vehicles just arrived in Syria. The National Guard showed them off to us during a rare visit to an American base here. “O.K., is everybody good? Because the most important story is the Bradleys. Combat power: That’s what the Bradley brings to the fight.” But why bring these vehicles in now? The commander in chief says one thing: “We’re keeping the oil. We have the oil. The oil is secure. We left troops behind only for the oil.” While the military says another: “I would be cautious with saying that the mission to secure the oil fields. The mission is the defeat of ISIS.” What we saw on the ground clarifies some of the confusion. The military is scrambling to save a mission that Trump has thrown into chaos. In early October, Trump announced an end to U.S. presence in northeastern Syria. “We are out of there. We’ve been out of there for a while. No soldiers whatsoever.” So the military abandoned bases and outposts and began to cede influence. Which let Russian and Syrian government forces sweep in to fill the vacuum. But as the U.S. was pulling out, military leaders convinced Trump that some troops had to stay. They said they needed to stop a precious resource, oil, from falling into the wrong hands. The plan worked. But when we visited, the oil didn’t seem like a priority. “And where are the oil fields exactly, from here?” “I think there’s one right up there. I’m not really sure.” “We don’t go patrol the oil fields or anything of that sort. But I mean having the Apaches here is a big strategic deterrence.” The priorities we saw? “We know that ISIS is trying to regroup.” Continue the fight against ISIS. “And we’re going to continue to put the pressure on ISIS. That is our mission.” Mend alliances — which is why a spokesman for the American-led coalition made a point of praising Kurdish forces in front of the cameras. “And we will never forget the sacrifice made by the strong, proud, brave S.D.F. warriors throughout Syria.” And more broadly, signal that the U.S. still has a foothold here. Clearly the president’s message ... “We’re getting out of the endless wars.” ... is being reinterpreted on the ground. “The mission still continues. We’ll be in bases from Deir al-Zour to Qamishli to Derik, and all throughout that expansive area.” What we saw was not a military in retreat. We saw a military displaying its beefed-up arsenal. “The Bradley provides a deterrent against conflict. Bad guys see it and they don’t want to fight it.” Evidence that for the U.S., the endless war here is going to last a little longer.