- Two thousand or so US forces remain in control of Syria’s rich eastern oil fields.
- Iran, Syria’s government, and Russia openly oppose the US presence, but there’s not much they can do about it.
- An expert explains why it would be a losing battle to take on the US.
Since the US-led effort against the Islamic State has reclaimed almost all of the terrorist group’s territory in Syria, 2,000 or so US forces remain in control of the country’s rich oil fields.
And though Russia, Syria’s government forces, and Iran’s militias all oppose that remaining US presence, there’s little they can do about it.
A small US presence in an eastern town called Deir Ezzor has maintained an iron grip on the oil fields and even repelled an advance of hundreds of pro-Syrian government forces – including some Russian nationals believed to be mercenaries – in a massive battle that became a lopsided win for the US.
Russia has advanced weapons systems in Syria, pro-Syrian government militias have capable Russian equipment, and Iran has about 70,000 troops in the country. On paper, these forces could defeat or oust the US and the Syrian rebels it backs, but in reality it would likely be a losing battle, according to an expert.
US forces at risk, but not as much as anyone who would attack them
“They have the ability to hurt US soldiers – it’s possible,” Tony Badran, a Syria expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider. But “if they do that,” he said, “they will absolutely be destroyed.”
In Badran’s view, even if Russia wanted a direct fight against the US military in Syria, something he and other experts seriously doubt, the forces aligned with Syria’s government don’t stand much of a chance.
“I think the cruise-missile attack in April showed, and the ongoing Israeli incursions show, the Russian position and their systems are quite vulnerable,” said Badran, referring to the US’s April 2017 strike on a Syrian airfield in response to a chemical-weapons attack in the country. Though Russia has stationed high-end air defences in Syria to protect its assets, that did not stop the US when President Donald Trump’s administration decided to punish the Syrian air force with 59 cruise missiles.
Russia has just a few dozen jets in Syria, mostly suited for ground-attack roles with some air-supremacy fighters. The US has several large bases in the area from which it can launch a variety of strike and fighter aircraft, including the world’s greatest fighter jet, the F-22.
Iran has a large inventory of rockets in and around Syria, according to Badran, but an Iranian rocket attack on US forces would be met by a much larger US retaliation.
“It’s vulnerable,” Badran said of Iran’s military presence in Syria. “It’s exposed to direct US fire, just like it’s exposed to direct Israeli fire.”
If Iran fired a single missile at US forces, “then the bases and depot and crew will be destroyed after that,” said Badran, who added that Iranian forces in Syria had poor supply lines that would make them ill-suited to fight the US, which has airpower and regional assets to move in virtually limitless supplies.
Badran noted that before the US entered the Syrian conflict, Islamic State fighters, whose training and equipment pales in comparison to the US forces’, had success disrupting Iranian-aligned militias’ supply lines “even though they’re under bombardment.”
At the same time, Syria’s military has struggled for years to take territory from Syrian rebels, some of whom do not receive funding or backing from the US. With Syria’s government focused on overcoming the civil war in the country’s more populous west, it’s unlikely they could offer any meaningful challenge to US forces in the country’s east.
The US defending itself is a given, and Russia, Iran, or Syria would be too bold to question that
“Everybody poses this question as though the US is Luxembourg,” Badran said, comparing the US, which has the most powerful military in the world, to Luxembourg, which has a few hundred troops and only some diplomatic or economic leverage to play with while conducting foreign policy.
For now, the US has announced its intentions to stay in Syria and sit on the oil fields as a way of denying the government the funds to reconstruct the country. Syria’s government has been linked to massive human-rights violations throughout the seven-year civil war, which started with popular uprisings against the country’s ruler, Bashar Assad.
While the US has failed to oust Assad or even meaningfully decrease the suffering of Syrian people, it remains a force incredibly capable of defending itself.
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