This fall, U.S.-led coalition forces escalated attacks in Syria once more, launching more than 1,000 air and artillery strikes, nearly all of them close to the border with Iraq, as Washington seeks to crush the Islamic State’s presence in the country before the end of the year. “They’re either here to fight to death or they’re just going to get killed because they have nowhere to go,” the coalition spokesperson Colonel Sean J. Ryan said of the remaining fighters.
After ISIS is defeated territorially, however—a goal that now looks to be an inevitability—what happens to the roughly 2,000 American soldiers stationed in Syria is murky. Officials have offered new counter-Iranian justifications for maintaining a military presence there, an argument that critics claim lacks legal standing and that leaves open the possibility of a deployment with no end in sight. And with Democrats having recaptured the House in midterm elections, Donald Trump’s administration may soon be under pressure to better justify that strategy, something that could prove much harder than expected.
There is a case to be made for maintaining at least some U.S. troops in Syria. The promise of extended American military support, for example, has helped cajole Kurdish fighters from inching toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and has encouraged Saudi Arabia to pledge financial support to stabilize areas captured from ISIS, Hassan Hassan, a senior research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told me. American officials also believe the deployment could strengthen the United States’ hand in negotiations for a political settlement in Syria.