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US Presence in Syria and Iraq Is Having No Effect on Attacks

Three different places in Syria are home to American military bases right now. The first two are in Deir Ez Zor province, east of the Euphrates River. Al Tanf, 300 km south, straddles the Iraq-Syria-Jordan tri-border area. Approximately 3 and a half years after the last remnants of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate were defeated, the United States maintains a presence in Syria with around 1,000 personnel. 

The United States deployment typically receives little media coverage. However, it got media coverage last week when Shia militias launched multiple drone and rocket attacks against U.S. soldiers at two sites, provoking a series of U.S. strikes in retaliation. Tuesday, the U.S. struck, targeting militia bunkers for an Aug. 15 drone strike against U.S. forces. The next day, however, U.S. personnel at the Conoco location in northeast Syria were harassed, leading to yet another wave of strikes the same day. This time, in addition to the missile launchers, at least four rebel fighters were slain.

U.S. officials say the strikes had two goals: To weaken militias’ capabilities, and to deter future rocket and drone attacks. 

Destroying installations is the U.S. military’s bread and butter. Since U.S. troops began facing fire from Iranian-aligned sectarian militias in Iraq and Syria, the U.S Air Force has reduced multiple militia facilities and munitions depots to ruins. The U.S. military is trained to detect, assess, and finish hardened targets. 

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Future attacks are another matter. And by now, it should be very evident that the United States airstrikes aren’t having the desired deterrent effect. The US has conducted similar operations against militia organizations before. If deterrence were effective, the United States government wouldn’t have to take any action. 

State actors with equities, constituents, and authority to maintain are most deterred. The typical nation-state is preoccupied with self-preservation and survival, irrespective of its internal politics. Going head to head with the world’s dominant military power, especially if it entails violence, is a dumb act that will inflict more harm than good. Even Washington’s fiercest foes avoid initiating missile attacks against U.S. bases. They don’t want to be the target of U.S. military might, plain and simple. 

Armed nonstate actors like Iraq and Syria have different considerations. Entities that don’t control or administer territory can act more callously than if they sought political dominance. Nonstate actors can be severely damaged before disintegrating or negotiating. The FARC held substantive talks with the Colombian government after a half-century. 

We shouldn’t be startled when projectiles fly toward U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. and militias often engage in a revolving tit-for-tat in which a missile strike prompts a U.S. reaction, followed by another rocket attack days or weeks later that motivates more U.S. attacks. Same story ever since at least 2019, and it will continue as long as U.S. soldiers are in both countries. 

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters last week that he thought the fresh U.S. strikes would be successful. “My hope would be that these groups would have received the message loud and clear and that we will not see similar behavior in the future,” he said