“They are the exporter of instability across the region,” US Secretary of Defense Mattis, his voice gruff and no-nonsense as usual, said in late July 2018. He was talking about Iran. On Syria, he quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Keep your eye on the ball.” There were some nations, such as Russia and Iran, keeping Assad in power. “Our job is to try to find a way in the midst of this chaos to help the innocent people.” To do that the US wanted to “get stability in northeast Syria. This starts with destroying ISIS. They are not destroyed yet. It’s not over yet. It’s going to be a lot longer, tougher fight.” In the midst of the last days of the war on ISIS, global and regional powers were jockeying to see who would win the peace. Trump, Putin, Rouhani, Erdogan, MBS and Netanyahu were all watching closely.
Since February 2018, the US had begun to concentrate on “stabilization” in Syria. But it was doing that at the same time that it hunted down the remnants of ISIS. “We are almost complete with liberation of the physical caliphate,” Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, commander of special operations in Syria, said. He praised the Syrian Democratic Forces as “great partners who have done a phenomenal job liberating terrain.”
The challenge was that these partner forces, made up of Kurds and Arabs from various units, including the YPG, had a slog ahead to defeat the ISIS remnants. In the Euphrates Valley near Iraq, “once you liberate terrain it’s not over. ISIS and al Qaeda are experts at blending in to the population and remain in a cellular structure and commit activities that delegitimize governance.” So the US was training local security forces in the “near term,” to give the local government breathing space to stabilize the countryside.
There was also a lot of reconstruction to be done and clearing thousands of IEDs. Jarrard said in February 2018 that in Raqqa, Manbij and Tabqa, it could take up to ten years to clear all the mines left behind. “That is the biggest inhibitor to all the other stabilization efforts because of the dangers of working in areas not cleared of IEDs. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 because the US wants to help the local people have security to get their agriculture developed and start earning a living, while the coalition wants the US State Department donors to set down foundations under a program called START Forward. You can’t have security if you can’t clear IEDs, and you can’t clear IEDs until the financial support is flowing to equip people to do it. Getting the financial support requires security and stabilization,” the American officer said.
The coalition and its partners also faced a second major problem in northern Syria near Manbij, where tensions had caused local Turkish-backed Syrian rebels to clash with the SDF. Turkey continued to accuse the YPG of being the Syrian branch of the PKK. In late January, Turkey launched a major military operation against the YPG in Afrin in northern Syria. The US was not operating in Afrin. However, on February 4, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said that if the “PKK/YPG terror group” did not leave Manbij, 130 kilometers to the east of Afrin, Turkey would move again into Manbij as well, according to a report at TRT.242 This could mean a clash between Turkish and US forces, or at least severe clashes between their partners. Mattis said that the US was balancing competing interests, and Turkey had indicated it could postpone its offensive.
The US-led coalition was outspoken on the Afrin issue. Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, then deputy commander of the Combined Joint Task Force − Operation Inherent Resolve, tweeted on February 3 that “Military operations in #Afrin, #Syria are placing Coalition’s #DefeatDaesh mission at risk.”
“The current situation in Manbij is fairly stable,” Jarrard said. “There is sporadic interaction between some opposition [rebel] forces and Kurdish forces along that interim border in the Manbij enclave in the Euphrates Shield area.” Euphrates Shield was the 2016–2017 operation by Turkey and its rebel allies to intervene near Manbij and clear a corridor along the Turkish border in Syria. As for the “sporadic” clashes around Manbij, there were procedures in place to “de-escalate” them quickly, the general said. This involved liason between the coalition and Turkey. “We work to de-escalate that as quickly as we can. So the security situation has not changed much in Manbij.”
Concern about the distraction, the once-stable part of northwest Syria, and the fact that the SDF was concerned about its YPG partners fighting there meant Jarrard had to focus on Afrin as well. But he hoped the conflict there would end, which it did in March with a Turkish victory. “We need to work with all partners and at all levels to restore stability and focus on ISIS.”
Operation Roundup near the Iraq border progressed slowly. Mattis was proud of the US helping to push ISIS out of Dashisha, and he praised the SDF. “When it fell, we’re now reoriented to their last bastions. As that falls, then we’ll sort out a new situation. But what you don’t do is simply walk away–and leave the place as devastated as it is. You don’t just leave it, and then ISIS comes back.”
So the US was engaging in a long-term campaign to restore eastern Syria. Making drinking water available, clearing IEDs and providing financial support for rebuilding Syria. And that “most likely awaits Assad’s leaving,” Mattis said. USAID and the State Department were also coming in. “My job is to destroy ISIS and to make certain . . . ISIS can’t get back in” by training local security forces to maintain the peace.
The US also faced a problem with Turkey. After sixteen joint patrols near Manbij, Trump had threatened sanctions due to Ankara’s detention of a US evangelical pastor, Andrew Brunson, who had been held without charges since the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt. The joint patrols were a way to reassure Turkey that the United States took its concerns seriously and show that the US wanted to work with Ankara. Brunson, who had lived in Turkey for decades, was arrested in 2016 and accused of being linked to banned political groups. He was eventually released in October 2018. This had thrown cold water on US-Turkey relations after Trump expressed interest in the Brunson case. At the July 27 discussion, Mattis said that “we continue to work very closely together.”
How that actually happened didn’t sound like closely working together, however. “Well, it’s already happening on opposite sides where the two of the patrols go along, and they get to certain points, they wait for the other one to get there. If somebody gets there first and then they do recognition signals back and forth and they move onto the next one. So those patrols are already going, but they’re separate. In other words, they’re on their side, we’re on our side.”
And then Mattis had to deal with Iran’s presence in Syria. He felt Tehran was helping to keep Assad in power. On Iran, Mattis said nothing had changed. While Iran’s influence grew, the US was working to defeat ISIS. Mattis repeated the key words “by, with and through,” the US motto. “That process will hopefully remove not just the terrorists that we’ve removed physically or we’ve killed or incarcerated–they’re under SDF incarceration–but also move foreign forces out of … Syria. That’s part of a process, and that’s not something that I can forecast … on a crystal ball.”
One of the groups involved in stabilization work was the Syrian Recovery Trust Fund. Even Brett McGurk was still on the job in July, a year and a half after Trump succeeded Obama. The ambassador welcomed the work the Syrian Recovery Trust Fund was doing in supporting agriculture. The fund itself said this was about stabilization. “The activity aims to restore cereal and vegetable harvest to pre-conflict levels.” But Paul Curtis Bradley and his humanitarian group team of Free Burma Rangers who visited Raqqa in the summer of 2018 found devastation. The city was mostly in ruins, with few civilians around. After crossing two dozen checkpoints in Iraq to get to the city in northeastern Syria, his team brought colorful playgrounds to set up for the youth of Raqqa. Locals were still scared. Scared that ISIS might return. Scared of IEDs. Bradley and his convoy of SUVs stopped in the city. Several of their group had gone ahead earlier and put up the slides and playground. It was bursting with blue and white and yellow amid the drab, gray background of Raqqa, the bullet holes and the pancaked roofs. Children smiled for a photo. Bradley and his colleagues were devout Christians. They prayed and ate together. Then some of them would head back to Burma or the US. But Syria would stay on their minds.
Like so many others, the Free Burma Rangers had come to Iraq to help the Kurds against ISIS, and they had stayed–working with the Iraqis, watching the Iraqi army and its armored columns be devastated during the liberation of Mosul–and then moved on to help in Syria as ISIS was defeated.
Shifting Gears to Iran
On August 16, Secretary of State Pompeo announced the creation of the Iran Action Group to coordinate US pressure on the Islamic Republic. Brian Hook would head up the group. Congress was also making headway on shifting focus to Iran. “Tehran has been responsible for a torrent of violent and destabilizing behavior against the US, our allies, our partners and indeed the Iranian people themselves,” said Pompeo. The National Defense Authorization Act included new focus on Tehran’s role in the region. Growing out of concerns about Iran’s actions across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, the NDAA focused on encouraging the administration to develop a strategy.
In the House and Senate, bills seeking to sanction Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba advanced in September and October. The Department of Defense was also examining Iran’s role through its Inspector General Report covering operations from April to June 2018. Released in August, it said the US was already using “indirect” means to confront Iran. It claimed Tehran had ten bases in Syria and forty positions.
In Syria, the State Department had secured $300 million to support “stabilization” and was growing its team on the ground.
At a briefing with the acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, David Satterfield, McGurk and Satterfield were pleased as they announced Joel Rayburn as a new special envoy for Syria. Pompeo tapped Jim Jeffrey as Washington’s representative for “Syria engagement.” Ambassador William Roebuck visited eastern Syria from Bahrain. Altogether the picture was one of growing US involvement in eastern Syria. In Manbij, Turkey and the US were discussing more joint patrols and a “road map,” even amid the tensions over the detained pastor.
Increasingly, the US began to move the goalposts in Syria as well. Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton visited Jerusalem, where he emphasized that the United States was not interested in regime change in Iran, but was confronting Iran in the region. In early September, Jeffrey said the US was not in a hurry to leave and that ISIS must be dealt an “enduring defeat.” A month later, he indicated the US might stay as long as Iran’s presence remained. With two thousand troops in Syria, the US was increasing its diplomatic presence, he said, but troops might be drawn down at some point.
US concerns about Iran’s role in Syria appeared to come together on October 1, when the IRGC fired six ballistic missiles at ISIS positions near Albukamal, in Deir ez-Zor Province. The missiles were a response to an ISIS attack on September 22 in Ahvaz, in Iran’s Khuzestan Province, that killed two dozen Iranians. It was only the second major attack on Iran by ISIS since the attack on parliament in 2017. Now Tehran used it as an excuse to use its missile arsenal. Lifting off in a blaze of fireballs near Kermanshah, western Iran, they lit up the mountains like a rising sun. Flying five hundred kilometers across Iraq, the missiles struck houses near the Euphrates, only five kilometers from US forces. A spokesman for the coalition said the United States had received “no notice.”
The IRGC had painted “Death to America” and “Death to al-Saud” on the missiles it fired. But the US didn’t initially condemn the Iranian barrage. General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, eventually said on October 3 that it had endangered American lives but that the US was not “on the road” to war with Tehran.
Vice President Mike Pence had condemned Iran’s use of missiles against Kurdish opposition in mid-September. The October strike went unmentioned. But it posed questions for Washington, which was still slogging along the Euphrates with the SDF to clean up the last ISIS pockets, in yet another phase of Operation Roundup.
The shift of focus to Iran was part of a larger regional strategy. Iran’s militias had filled the vacuum left by ISIS, and Tehran was a major beneficiary of the chaos left behind by the Sunni extremists. In Iraq, the Iranian regime was seeking to form the new government after the May 2018 elections saw Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah list come in second. In Syria, it was annoyed to be left out of the Russia-Turkey Idlib deal in September, but Tehran was digging in around the country. It was also winning a war of words with Israel after Netanyahu accused Hezbollah of stocking an arsenal near the Beirut airport and showed images of a “nuclear” warehouse in Tehran. News crews followed the Lebanese and Iranians to both locations and found nothing. The Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, flew to the United Nations General Assembly annual meeting in September, doing a round of interviews with media in which he accused the United States of being a rogue administration.
In Iraq, the US was concerned that the new government might be even more pro-Iran than the last one. Abadi had been Washington’s great hope. He had been empowered by going into Kirkuk, and McGurk had helped Iraq patch up relations with Riyadh. But after Abadi punished the Kurdish region, he found himself coming in third place in the elections. With Washington’s man in Baghdad sidelined, it was unclear who would come to power. A young mayor from Anbar named Mohammed Halbusi was elected speaker of the parliament. Pompeo called him on September 19 and told him that the United States would support him forming a “moderate, nationalist, Iraqi government.” Nationalist was a euphemism for “less Iran, more Iraq in Iraq.”
From After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East, Gefen Publishing, Jerusalem: 2019
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist, oped editor of The Jerusalem Post and contributor to Defense News. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (forthcoming from Gefen Publishing). Follow him at @sfrantzman. .