Announcing his new Afghanistan strategy in August, President Donald Trump insisted “we are not nation-building again.” The pledge—made while increasing indefinitely the American commitment to the government in Kabul—put him in the company of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who like Trump campaigned in part on rejecting the idea of nation-building. They also, like Trump, promptly surged troops and money into wars and reconstruction efforts overseas.
And the president has quietly embarked on another such project—in Syria, where the U.S. has put down roots and is making plans to stay.
Officials in Washington remain tight-lipped about the exact outlines of the effort in the Kurdish-dominated northeastern corner of the country, where some 2,000 U.S. troops—joined by a growing army of diplomats and aid workers—are overseeing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of reconstruction and security projects. What they do insist on, as the White House’s envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, did recently, is that “we are not engaged in nation-building exercises and long-term reconstruction.” And in the most expansive public comments by an American official about the U.S. strategy for Syria to date, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday that the United States is committed to “maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved.” In his remarks, delivered at Stanford University, he offered no timetable for when that might be.
“We’re going to be [in Syria] until the political process gains traction,” Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad, recently offered. His boss, Defense Secretary James Mattis, has said repeatedly that the United States has no plans to withdraw troops until a United Nations-blessed peace settlement, currently being brokered in Geneva between the Syrian government and a patchwork of opposition forces, is reached. That process shows no sign of an imminent breakthrough, giving Washington plenty of time to work with.
Still, American officials say what they are doing in northeast Syria looks nothing like the wholesale changes they made in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. forces overthrew existing governments and then helped rebuild new institutions. In Syria, Assad’s government still stands, even if by Tillerson’s reckoning it only controls half the country—importantly, not the Kurdish areas that remain the focus of U.S. efforts. This is a key difference, and leaves the U.S. in the position of helping build parts of a new governing structure in patches of the country, even while the old still stands elsewhere. And the U.S. plan seems to count on Assad’s eventual departure, too. “A stable, unified, and independent Syria ultimately requires post-Assad leadership in order to be successful,” Tillerson said Wednesday. “Continued U.S. presence to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS will also help pave the way for legitimate local civil authorities to exercise responsible governance of their liberated areas.”
As to protecting those areas—wedged in a tense position bordering Turkey, Iraq, and Syrian regime forces backed by Russia and Iran—on Sunday, American military officials confirmed they are building a 30,000-strong security force. It will be drawn in part from the U.S.-backed, and largely Kurdish, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who recently helped rout ISIS from its last urban strongholds. The effort will take “several years” a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad told me, and “will enable the Syrian people to establish effective local, representative governance and reclaim their land.”
The SDF’s Kurds emerged as the most lethal fighting force for countering the Islamic State in 2016, and partnered with American and NATO special-operations forces to retake the cities of Tabqa and Raqqa over the past two years, pushing the terrorist army to the Iraqi border. The Pentagon plans to spend $500 million in 2018 to continue training and equipping them, sending thousands of small and heavy arms, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, mortars, and vehicles, all against the long-standing opposition of the Turkish government, which views the Kurdish fighters as terrorists. There’s also the question of whether the fighters will eventually turn their weapons on Syrian government forces once ISIS has been fully defeated and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad begins to follow through on his promise to retake “every inch” of Syria back.
The other pressures on the Kurdish areas are immense, and mounting. In response to the U.S. announcement of the border force, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to “destroy all terror nests one by one in Syria.” Erdogan has sent tanks and troops to the border with a vow to wipe out the Syrian city of Manbij, where American Special Operations Forces train fighters and maintain outposts. In a speech on Monday, Erdogan threatened American troops directly, warning, “don't stand between us and these herd of murderers. Otherwise, we won't be responsible for the unwanted incidents that may arise.”
Beyond the military strategy and its risks, it’s hard to get details about the U.S.-sponsored reconstruction work in Syria. One State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity acknowledged that more U.S. aid workers and diplomats are heading for the Kurdish-dominated northeast this year, and they plan to spend approximately $400 million on economic assistance and stability work. The money might seem a relatively small investment compared to the hundreds of billions Washington has spent in Iraq and Afghanistan on reconstruction over the past 16 years, but it does raise the question of what exactly the spending supports.
“We have now entered the stabilization phase of the Trump strategy in Syria, but it remains unclear what that strategy is,” said Nicholas Heras, of the Center for New American Security who studies the Syrian conflict. “The rebuilding in areas the SDF has recaptured like Aleppo and Manbij has been quite slow, with a lack of funding from both the U.S. and international community. … Donors from around the world want guarantees that the U.S. will stay on the ground in Syria, and they won’t have to work through Damascus—and the longer the American position remains unclear, the more unstable some of these devastated areas may become.”
In Raqqa and Tabqa, cities in SDF-controlled areas, U.S. teams are working with locals to facilitate humanitarian assistance, direct de-mining activities, and “prioritize and implement stabilization activities,” a diplomatic official said. The Americans are working particularly closely with the Raqqa Civil Council to get humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of displaced civilians, and U.S. Army engineers recently built a new, permanent bridge just outside of the city in order to help move more supplies in. Another project that has about 80 Western contractors already in place is a $41 million State Department program to clear unexploded ordnance and defuse booby-trapped buildings left behind after ISIS was pushed out.
“Right now the key foreign policy interest is stabilizing these areas and creating a sense of hope in these communities that were brutalized by ISIS,” said Stan Brown, director of the office of Weapons Removal and Abatement at the State Department. Brown’s office hired the contractors to do the de-mining work, and has trained roughly 120 locals to help with the monumental task. He said the sheer volume of explosives left behind in northern Syria will take years to clear.
Repeated requests to the State Department for a more detailed breakdown of the number of American government employees involved in these efforts, exact projects underway, the number of contractors hired, and the estimated price tag in 2018 went unanswered.
Meanwhile, American policymakers continue to pin their hopes on the peace process in Geneva. Sam Heller, a Beirut-based Syria expert at the Century Foundation, said “the prospects for Geneva are nil,” due to the deep disagreements between Damascus and the opposition, and the narrowly focused nature of the proposed talks. The nascent discussions are structured to ignore the country’s northeast and America’s Kurdish partner forces, so they “no longer represent the real balance on the ground,” Heller said.
Some elements of the endgame may be coming into focus, however. American military officials have acknowledged that elements of the SDF have made some initial contacts with Syrian forces across the Euphrates in what some believe could lead to a larger effort by the Kurds to eventually rejoin Syria while trying to retain some elements of autonomy. The Russians, Assad’s largest benefactor, have also reached out to SDF leaders in a series of small engagements, offering promises of stability—as opposed to the Americans, who have pledged to leave at some point.
As these larger geopolitical puzzles wait to be solved, the Americans, with thousands of troops, deep pockets, and regular rotations of drones and military aircraft overhead, remain a serious force on the ground in Syria. And they’re building. While no one in Washington appears willing to answer how long this state of affairs will last, it appears that despite the White House’s aversion to nation building, the rest of the government may have other plans.