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US Military Being Pushed From Middle East, Disrupting Terror Fight

  • Russia and Iran are working together with Syria to ultimately push US forces out of the country. 
  • The trio has been coordinating on several fronts and has been taking aggressive actions. 
  • US officials and war experts say these efforts are hurting the international fight against ISIS. 

For years, the main worries for US forces deployed to Syria were their counterterrorism operations and taking out Islamic State militants. But regional rivals are becoming an increasingly troubling distraction, and it’s threatening the American military’s mission. 

Russia and Iran both have security interests in Syria and appear to be working together with the Syrian government to push US forces out of the country in a coercive and systematic effort that has expanded, war experts say. The multifaceted campaign endangers American troops, threatens US interests in the region, and also directly interferes with the US-led fight against a growing ISIS threat, something that officials in Washington have increasingly raised concerns over. 

There are several ways that the trio works individually and collectively to apply pressure on US forces in Syria, according to an analysis published this month by the Institute for the Study of War and supported by the American Enterprise Institute, two Washington-based think tanks. These actions include troop mobilization, intelligence sharing, aircraft harassment, and false information operations.

“Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime have a shared interest in the departure of US forces from Syria,” the experts wrote in their analysis, adding that the three countries “have aligned their actions to advance this objective” for months now.

American soldiers stand during a joint exercise with Syrian Democratic Forces at the countryside of Deir Ezzor in northeastern Syria, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.

American soldiers stand during a joint exercise with Syrian Democratic Forces at the countryside of Deir Ezzor in northeastern Syria, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.

AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad

Both Russia and Iran are allied with the brutal Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow helps support his years-long civil war, and Tehran backs several militias there. The US, meanwhile, has about 900 troops deployed to the country as part of an international coalition that works with the local Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to carry out counterterrorism missions against ISIS, missions that seem to be less of a priority for the other three players that are trying to kick the US off the field.

What are Russia, Iran, and Syria doing?

Iran has long tried to push US forces from Syria, and neighboring Iraq, and regional experts previously told Insider that this desire only increased in 2020 after Washington assassinated Qassem Soleimani, who was the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force — a branch of Tehran’s military that works closely with regional militias.

In support of this mission, Iran-backed militias have routinely engaged US forces in tit-for-tat exchanges of fire, with the militias firing rockets and lobbing drones at American personnel and the US responding with airstrikes. The latest flare-up, which proved to be deadly, happened earlier this year after a suspected Iranian drone struck a coalition base in Syria, prompting a powerful American response.

While Iran’s strategy has gone on for years, coordination between the three countries to oust the US really took off in late 2022, according to the ISW analysis. Since then, Russia and Iran have strengthened ties with the Syrian government as it looks to restore its diplomatic presence with the rest of the region and as Moscow and Tehran seek to increase their influence in the country. 

“US military officials explain that the increase in Russian aggression against US forces in Syria is compensation for the decrease in Russian capabilities in the country and is a response to US support for Ukraine,” the ISW analysis notes. “The shift in Russian strategy in Syria occurred late last year, however. Russia had restrained some Iranian efforts to expel US forces from Syria until then.”

In this Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 photo a Russian soldier guards as a military helicopter flies over Palmyra, Syria.

In this Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 photo a Russian soldier guards as a military helicopter flies over Palmyra, Syria.

AP Photo

The coordination has become especially transparent in recent weeks. Both Iran and Syria have directed militias and soldiers to the line of contact with the US-allied SDF, and Russia has expanded its intelligence sharing with Tehran, according to the ISW analysis.

The mobilization has already led to clashes between the SDF and forces loyal to the Syrian government, and experts warn that troop buildups could eventually spark a broader conflict that involves the US. All three countries, meanwhile, have also claimed without evidence that the US and SDF plan to attack regime-held territory, part of an information operation aimed at spreading false rumors about coalition aggression. 

Amid these problematic developments, Russian fighter jets have routinely harassed US military drones on counterterrorism missions above Syria throughout July, even breaking one of its aircraft in one instance. American officials have blasted Moscow’s pilots for acting recklessly and unprofessionally during these engagements, but experts say the Kremlin may have directed these incidents to support Iran in its overall goal of ousting the US from the region. 

Impacting the fight against terror

With Iran, Russia, and Syria all directing a lot of their effort on making life difficult for the US and its allies in Syria, there have been less resources devoted to what experts assess is “considerable evidence of a growing ISIS threat” in the country.

Syrian Democratic Forces soldiers hold a position in Hassakeh, northeast Syria, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

Syrian Democratic Forces soldiers hold a position in Hasakah, northeast Syria, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad

“Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime are giving lower priority to counter-ISIS operations while mobilizing forces in eastern Syria, which very likely presents ISIS with the space to grow its capabilities and rest and refit over the long term,” the ISW analysis notes. 

US officials have already accused Russia of interfering with counterterrorism operations. In early July, a Russian fighter jet flew 18 close passes near American MQ-9 Reaper drones during a two-hour-long encounter. A US military initially described the engagement as an “unsafe” situation, and those drones later went on to carry out a strike in Syria that killed an ISIS leader just a few hours later. 

After the strike was disclosed, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters that the US is very upfront with communicating its counterterrorism missions to the Russians.

“The Russians know that, they know exactly where we operate, and so there is no excuse for Russian forces’ continual harassment of our MQ-9s after years of US operations in the area aimed at ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Singh said at the time. “And it is almost as if the Russians are now on a mission to protect ISIS leaders.”

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