Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – President Joe Biden ordered air strikes on Thursday (Friday in Syria) against militiamen in the Harabish neighborhood just outside the city of Deir az-Zor, who are suspected of having launched an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone against an American base in northeast Syria.
The metro area of Deir az-Zor has a population of about 338,000. The governorate of which it is the capital is largely Sunni Arab, though there is a small convert Shiite population and about 1,000 Christians. The Atlantic Council reports that Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces, and Pakistani and Iranian volunteer Shiite forces have operated in the area.
The drone had killed one contractor, an American, as well as injuring 5 US service personnel and another contractor. The UAV appeared to have been of Iranian design, though it was allegedly fired by an Iran proxy rather than by Revolutionary Guards directly. Hezbollah and some radical Iraqi militias, along with Alawi Shabiha militias, are in Syria to help the government of President Bashar al-Assad fight the Sunni Arab rebels, though the latter have by now largely been defeated.
The US has 900 troops in Syria, which is too small a force even to defend itself. They are involved in mopping up operations against the ISIL terrorist cult, and they coordinate with the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces to ensure that Deir ez-Zor’s petroleum production goes to the Kurdish-majority provinces rather than to the Syrian government in Damascus.
The small US contingent is said to try to interfere with Iranian trucking from Iraq into Syria, which resupplies Shiite militias in Syria or Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It is unlikely that they actually stop much in the way of such traffic, since Shiite militias control the Iraqi border checkpoint into Syria’s Deir ez-Zor governorate.
Biden should, of course, withdraw these US troops from Syria, given that they are vulnerable to such drone attacks. The Obama administration’s rationale for putting US troops into Syria, over the objections of Damascus, had been self-defense against ISIL. Since ISIL is no longer in a position to carry out attacks in the US — and never really was, if it had just been deplatformed by Facebook and Twitter — that justification seems to me to no longer be valid, if it ever was. Most of the activities of these US troops and contractors in Syria are probably illegal in international law, and they are in constant danger of dragging the US into a wider conflict.