No ‘End Date’ for U.S. Troops in Syria

Top general is confident he can keep pressure on the Islamic State, but a recent watchdog report says the group could reconstitute.

A convoy of U.S. armored vehicles patrols the northeastern Syrian town of Qahtaniyah
A convoy of U.S. armored vehicles patrols the northeastern Syrian town of Qahtaniyah at the border with Turkey on Oct. 31. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

MANAMA, Bahrain—Less than two months after U.S. President Donald Trump demanded all U.S. troops withdraw from northeastern Syria for the second time, the general in charge of all U.S. forces in the Middle East now says he has no orders to leave the region. 

“I don’t have an end date,” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told a small group of reporters in Bahrain on Saturday. 

Roughly 500 U.S. forces will remain in northeastern Syria with their Kurdish-led partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to continue fighting the remnants of the Islamic State, McKenzie said during a visit to Bahrain for the Manama Dialogue security summit. Under Trump’s directive, the troops will primarily be stationed in the Deir Ezzor province to guard the region’s rich oil fields, but the Defense Department insists that the mission is part of the broader campaign to defeat the terrorist group.

Despite a recent Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria and ensuing turmoil in the region, McKenzie said in a separate interview with Foreign Policy that he is confident the coalition can effectively hunt the Islamic State from its more limited position in Syria and a nearby outpost in Iraq. Operations against the militants resumed over the weekend, with coalition forces killing and injuring multiple fighters in a Nov. 22 raid in the Deir Ezzor province.

McKenzie stressed that the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a U.S. raid last month “decapitated” the group, and the coalition continues to hunt for Baghdadi’s successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi. In the long term, the U.S. goal “is to reduce our presence in Syria,” he said.

But a recent Department of Defense Inspector General report painted a darker picture. The Islamic State is likely to exploit the Turkish invasion and the partial U.S. withdrawal to reconstitute its operations in Syria and plot terrorist acts against the West, the report warned. The Defense Intelligence Agency told the watchdog that the group is likely to more freely build clandestine networks and attempt to free Islamic State fighters and family members detained by the SDF.

Further, the intelligence agency told the Inspector General that the death of Baghdadi would likely have “little effect” on the Islamic State’s ability to reconstitute. 

The Nov. 22 mission was the first large-scale operation against the Islamic State since an Oct. 9 Turkish invasion that led U.S. and SDF forces to scatter. After an Oct. 6 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump initially ordered all U.S. forces to withdraw from Syria, then reversed course and ordered hundreds of additional troops and armored vehicles into the country to guard the Deir Ezzor oil fields.

“As you would expect during a period of tactical reset where we moved and the SDF moved as well, there has been a slight lull in those operations,” McKenzie told reporters.

This marked the second time Trump has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, only to reverse the decision.

Despite the Pentagon’s insistence that the residual force is focused on defeating the Islamic State, experts have questioned the credibility of the U.S. mission, noting that the primary threat to the oil is Russian and Syrian regime forces, rather than the weakened Islamic State. One key question is whether U.S. troops have the legal authority to engage Russian, Syrian, or Iranian forces that attempt to seize the oil fields. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force does not give U.S. forces the authority to fire on state actors unless they are acting in self-defense.

McKenzie, for his part, maintained that U.S. troops will work with the SDF to deny Islamic State control of the oil fields, which once provided a significant source of revenue for the terrorist group. The U.S. military mission is not to fight state actors in the region—Iran, Syria, and Russia—but U.S. troops will defend themselves if attacked, he said.

“We are there to finish ISIS, the remnants of ISIS, and to operate in the east in the security area to prevent any remnants of ISIS from taking those oil fields,” McKenzie told Foreign Policy.

While skirmishes continue to erupt across northeastern Syria, conditions have stabilized enough for the coalition’s counter-Islamic State operations to resume. But one presidential tweet could scuttle McKenzie’s careful military planning.  

“We plan for a variety of contingencies—that’s what you would expect us to do and that’s what we do,” McKenzie said.

In the separate interview with Foreign Policy, McKenzie acknowledged a period of “instability” following the Turkish invasion. As roughly 850 U.S. special forces stationed in northeastern Syria moved out following the president’s withdrawal order, SDF forces flowed north to counter the Turkish attack, and hundreds of Islamic State prisoners escaped from unguarded SDF facilities. 

But McKenzie said the militants’ advantage would likely be temporary. The physical Islamic State caliphate has been defeated, and McKenzie said U.S. troops are committed to hunting down the remnants of the group. 

“What we’re talking about is packets of people who represent the wreckage that followed in the wake of the caliphate,” McKenzie said. “They still have the power to injure, still have the power to cause violence, and we want to get after that and clean that up.”

In the most recent operation, the coalition cleared the terrorist compound and removed a “significant amount” of small arms, homemade explosives, and ammunition, according to a press release.

McKenzie also said there is danger posed by tens of thousands of Islamic State prisoners and refugees affiliated with the group held in overcrowded camps across northeastern Syria. Many of these people, including tens of thousands of women and children, are at risk of radicalization, he said.

Humanitarian needs “are minimally met at best in these camps, and it is a virulent breeding ground for further radicalization,” McKenzie said. “That concerns me very much, and I think it’s one of the greatest threats that we have in Syria.”

The Inspector General report also warned that the Turkish incursion and initial withdrawal of U.S. troops hindered critical stabilization and humanitarian efforts. The State Department directed a small group of personnel deployed to northeastern Syria to evacuate shortly following the invasion, even though the group had just returned to the country again after a six-month absence prompted by Trump’s first withdrawal order, in December 2018. 

Despite the lack of U.S. State Department personnel on the ground, in the midst of the invasion, the White House authorized an additional $50 million in “emergency” stabilization assistance to Syrian human rights groups. The money will go toward “increased accountability, removal of explosive remnants of war, community security for stabilization assistance, documenting human rights abuses and international humanitarian law violations, and support for survivors of gender-based violence and torture,” a State Department official told Foreign Policy. 

Staff from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development will continue to manage and oversee stabilization efforts from the United States and U.S. embassies in the region, the official said.

Still, humanitarian needs in northeastern Syria continue to grow, with the Turkish incursion displacing hundreds of thousands of people, causing hundreds of civilian casualties and destroying critical infrastructure, the Inspector General warned.

McKenzie acknowledged that the situation in Syria “has changed” since the Turkish operation and said he is “disappointed” in Ankara’s actions. But said Turkey has “legitimate security concerns” regarding the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which makes up the backbone of the SDF and which Ankara views as a terrorist group.

“Turkey is a NATO ally, a treaty ally of the United States,” McKenzie said. “I’m not going to minimize how disappointed we are in northeastern Syria, I’ve got that, but at the same time there are other factors at play in Turkey.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman