America's adversaries in Syria are using military force to undermine U.S. forces and their partners. The Russian and Iranian military coalition backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad coordinated a major attack against the U.S.-led Anti-ISIS Coalition in Eastern Syria. The U.S. responded tactically by striking its attackers in self defense, stopping the offensive. But this tactical success demonstrates that U.S. strategy in Syria is failing. Russia and Iran seek ways to capitalize on U.S. failures and act to constrain, disrupt, and ultimately expel the U.S. from Syria and the Middle East. Turkey, meanwhile, has invaded Syria to challenge Kurdish forces, some of which the U.S. backs. The U.S. risks losing the gains it has made fighting ISIS to Russia and Iran.
Russia and Iran intentionally attacked U.S. and partnered forces in Eastern Syria. Several hundred pro-Syrian regime fighters launched a “coordinated attack” against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the main U.S. partner in Syria – in Eastern Deir ez-Zour province on February 7. The U.S. has long had its own military personnel in the base. The U.S. responded with successful force protection strikes.
The U.S. must help stabilize Eastern Syria in order to prevent ISIS from returning to its stronghold in Ar-Raqqa City, from which anti-ISIS coalition drove the terrorist organization in late 2017. The U.S. is using its primary ground partner – the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – to restore some semblance of civilian life in formerly ISIS-held terrain. U.S. military personnel advise these partners. These efforts also serve to contain the influence of Russia and Iranian proxies in Eastern Syria, which the U.S. has partially constrained to the south side of the Euphrates.
Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime planned the operation in advance. They began preparing the attack weeks in advance and aimed to increase Iranian presence east of the Euphrates River in order to seize valuable oil and gas fields. Russia and Iran have for months sought to reintegrate by force critical areas in Eastern Syria held by the SDF - including Ar-Raqqa City as well as key oil and natural gas fields in Eastern Syria - back into the Assad regime. The oil and gas fields are critical for stabilizing the Syrian economy and Assad's regime. They also provide a source of revenue for these Russian and Iranian efforts.
Russia used proxy partners and official messaging to obfuscate its involvement, using a hybrid warfare technique common in Ukraine. Russian private military contractors and Lebanese Hezbollah  participated in the attack. Russian officers maintained continuous communication with U.S. military officials through the deconfliction hotline during the attack in order to obfuscate Russia’s direct role in the incident. Russia both supported the attack and simultaneously gave the impression of genuine efforts to prevent the attack in order to confuse senior U.S. decision makers.
U.S. deterrence in Syria is failing. Russian and Iranian-backed forces had already directly challenged U.S. forces and their partners twice in 2017. Russia and Iran conducted similar probing attacks near Ar-Raqqa City and the U.S.-Rebel Base on the Syrian-Iraqi Border in mid-2017 prompting the U.S. to conduct protective strikes. Russia and Iran successfully concluded operations to limit U.S. freedom of movement of in Eastern Syria, including the seizure of Abu Kamal on the Iraqi-Syrian Border in November 2017. The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition is also struggling to deter similar attacks by Turkey against U.S. partners in Northern Syria. The U.S. has forces deployed between Turkish-backed forces and U.S. partners near Manbij in Northern Syria in order to deter an expansion of Turkish operations. Senior U.S. officials are conducting diplomatic visits to Turkey to negotiate a de-escalation of territory around Manbij as a future flashpoint between Turkish-backed forces and U.S. partners.
Turkish military operations in Northern Syria have created opportunities that Russia and Iran tried to exploit. The Turks invaded Syria’s Northern Afrin region on January 20 to oust from the area Kurdish forces, some of which are fighting an insurgency against Turkey. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Eastern Syrian and other Kurdish forces consider losing a primarily Kurdish district to Turkey as an existential threat. SDF reinforcements have therefore deployed to northwestern Syria in order to defend Kurdish-majority Afrin. These reinforcements included the U.S. armed Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the main component of the SDF – and several other SDF-subcomponents including the U.S.-trained Raqqa Internal Security Forces intended to stabilize post-ISIS Ar-Raqqa City. The battle against Turkey in northwestern Syria distracts the SDF from the fight against ISIS in Eastern Syria.
The U.S. is drawing down in Iraq and Syria while all other actors are escalating. The four-star headquarters responsible for the Middle East announced on February 7 that the U.S. was drawing down some of its air power and intelligence assets from Iraq and Syria. U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have tried to isolate the fight against ISIS from the rest of the Syrian Civil War. In contrast, U.S. enemies, adversaries, and even allies correctly see the problems in Syria as intertwined. The U.S. must recognize it cannot sustainably pursue its objectives in Syria without taking into account the objectives of Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The U.S. must formulate a comprehensive Syria policy and commit the necessary resources to accomplish American interests rather than declare arbitrary victory and withdraw.