By Phil Stewart
NORTHEASTERN SYRIA (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – The US deployment in Syria for nearly eight years to fight the Islamic State is still worth the risk, the senior US military official said on Saturday, after a rare unannounced visit to a dusty base in the northeast of the country to meet with US troops.
Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Syria to assess efforts to prevent a resurgence of the militant group and review safeguards for American forces against attack, including drones flown by the military-backed militia ‘Iran.
While the Islamic State is the shadow of the group that ruled over a third of Syria and Iraq in a Caliphate declared in 2014, hundreds of fighters are still encamped in desolate areas where neither the US-led coalition nor the military Syrian, with the backing of Russia and Iranian-backed militias, exercise full control.
Thousands of other Islamic State fighters are in detention facilities guarded by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, America’s key ally in the country.
American officials say the Islamic State could still develop into a major threat.
But the mission, which former President Donald Trump nearly wrapped up in 2018 before softening his withdrawal plans, is a holdover from the broader global war on terrorism that once included the war in Afghanistan and a US military deployment. much wider in Iraq.
Asked by journalists traveling with him whether he believed the Syrian deployment of some 900 US troops in Syria was worth the risk, Milley tied the mission to the security of the United States and its allies, saying: “If you think it matters, then the answer is yes.'”
“I happen to think it’s important,” Milley said.
“So I think a lasting defeat of ISIS and continuing to support our friends and allies in the region… I think these are important tasks that can be done.”
The mission carries risks. Four US soldiers were injured during a helicopter raid last month when an Islamic State leader triggered an explosion.
Last month, the US military shot down an Iranian-made drone in Syria that was attempting to conduct reconnaissance over a patrol base in northeastern Syria.
Three drones targeted a US base in Syria’s Al-Tanf region in January. The US military said two of the drones were shot down while the remaining drone struck the compound, wounding two members of the Free Syrian Army forces.
US officials believe the drone and rocket attacks are being directed by Iranian-backed militias, a reminder of Syria’s complex geopolitics, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad counts on support from Iran and Russia and sees US troops as occupiers .
US NATO ally Turkey has also threatened a broad offensive in Syria that would threaten the US military’s Syrian Kurdish partners, whom Ankara considers terrorists.
US Army Major General Matthew McFarlane, who commands the US-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, described the attacks on US forces as a “distraction from our core mission”.
McFarlane cited progress against the Islamic State, including through reducing the number of internally displaced people in refugee camps, a vulnerable pool of people who could be recruited by the Islamic State.
Al-Hol camp is home to some 50,000 people, including Syrians, Iraqis and other nationals who have fled the conflict, and McFarlane estimated that around 600 babies were born there each year.
Michigan National Guard Lieutenant Kamal Alsawafy is one of the U.S. soldiers in Syria helping provide security for Iraqis leaving al-Hol to be flown back to Iraq in protected convoys.
The son of Iraqi refugees who emigrated to the United States, Alsawafy said helping Iraqi refugees brings him joy and described seeing people in al-Hol cheering as Iraqis left the camps for a better life in Iraq.
“It’s a good feeling,” Alsawafy said.
McFarlane said he believed there would come a time when US partners in Syria could fend for themselves. But there is no publicly known target date for completing that transition.
“Over time, I imagine we will move when the conditions are met, where our partners can independently have sustainable capacity and capabilities to bring ISIS under control,” he said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Diane Craft)