With President Donald Trump's announcement to withdraw American troops from Syria on December 19th, analysts and American media have deemed the presence of about 2000 troops in northern/eastern Syria controlled by the U.S.-allied and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces either as:
- Wholly insufficient compared with the number of troops and military assets from the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces, or,
- In the word of Hagar Chemali, a former spokesperson for the US Mission to the United Nations, on CNN yesterday: "a very low-cost effort. You have about 2000 troops in areas that have already been liberated. They're there to make sure that things are rebuilt, that refugees can go back. And we know that ISIS is not completely defeated."
"Only" 2000 troops, but boots on the ground is not the full story about American military capability in Syria. On February 8, 2018, an attempt by pro-Syrian government forces to attack territory controlled by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and where American troops were present was met with devastating American and coalition airstrikes and repelled, the New York Times reported. U.S. troops on the ground typically collect intelligence and call in airstrikes.
Characterizing American presence in Syria as a "very low-cost effort [...] in areas that have already been liberated," is equally inaccurate and misleading. As I saw the day of my arrival in Manbij last June, American troops go in patrols in groups of three Hummvees and go on foot patrols as well, reportedly. This makes them vulnerable to attacks. One U.S. soldier was killed in an improvised explosive device attack in Manbij on March 30th. Army Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar was the fourth service member who has died in Syria since the U.S. sent troops to Syria in 2014.
"If there is an incident where 10 or 15 American soldiers are killed, it becomes a political issue in the U.S. and Trump will abandon Syria. The Iranians understand that," Robert Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria, told me in May.