Jack Detsch / Al-Monitor & BBC World News & Agnes Helou / Defense News – 2018-04-13 23:41:04
US Military Bases Built in Syria
Massive US Contractor Presence in Syria for the First Time
Jack Detsch / Al-Monitor
(April 13, 2018) — The US military is using more than 5,500 contractors in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, the Pentagon revealed in a quarterly report this week that acknowledges the use of contractors in the Syrian war zone for the first time.
The latest figures from US Central Command indicate that 5,508 US and foreign contractors are working alongside US troops in the two combat zones. That’s an increase of 581, or 12%, over January’s numbers, which did not include Syria. About half of the contractors are US citizens, while the rest are local or third-country hires.
The disclosure comes as President Donald Trump has signaled his desire to pull US troops out of Syria “very soon” after the end of the counter-IS mission. The role of contractors in Syria is also under increasing scrutiny after hundreds of Russian contractors died in a battle with US troops and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the oil-rich Deir ez-Zor province, as CIA Director and Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo publicly confirmed in his Senate confirmation hearing April 12.
Unlike the Russians, however, the US contractors are mostly focused on supporting the 2,000 US troops in Syria by delivering hot meals, gasoline and other supplies. More than 30% of them support logistics and maintenance, according to the quarterly Pentagon report, and another 27% help with support and construction of US military outposts in the region.
“It’s not the Russian contractor role in Syria, which is . . . deploying tactical military units of squad company size,” said Peter Singer, a senior fellow and strategist at the New America think tank in Washington. “It’s the old stuff that Halliburton used to do.”
More than 400 “security” contractors are also involved in the fight in both countries, but “you’re not seeing the 163rd private US military group invading a city in Syria,” Singer said. Russian military contractors are also helping to protect oil fields across the country, protecting an industry that represented a quarter of Syria’s government revenue in 2010.
Though previous Defense Department personnel reports in the region hadn’t mentioned a Pentagon contractor presence in Syria, the US Department of Labor acknowledged in a report last year that two contractors were killed and six injured in fiscal year 2017. The Pentagon numbers don’t represent contractors working for other US agencies, such as the State Department, which assists with demining.
The Pentagon’s admission comes after an awkward back-and-forth between Trump and his top military and diplomatic advisers at a National Security Council meeting last week. While the president wants to declare victory on IS and pull out, the Pentagon has asked the commander-in-chief to leave US forces in Syria to prevent insurgent cells from regrouping along Syria’s border with Iraq.
Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, said at a public event last week, “The hard part is in front of us” in the war-torn country. Less than a mile away at the White House, Trump appeared to contradict US pledges to stay in the Syria fight at an open Cabinet meeting after long expressing his frustration over US military spending in the Middle East. The White House also recently announced a $200 million cut in funds earmarked for stabilizing Syria.
Despite their nonkinetic role, some experts say contractors face many of the same dangers as the US troops and Syrian forces who battled Russian mercenaries in February. With IS on the run and multiple US antagonists ready to push out the United States and its allies, civilian personnel risk getting caught in the crossfire.
“I would give America a six-month honeymoon here,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies. “Turkey, Syria and Iran are just sitting there, waiting to stick shivs in us.”
Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor‘s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor‘s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco. On Twitter: @JackDetsch_ALM, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Background: US Plans Open-ended Military Presence in Syria
BBC World News
(January 18, 2018) — The US will maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria to ensure the enduring defeat of the jihadist group Islamic State, counter Iranian influence, and help end the civil war.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said President Donald Trump did not want to “make the same mistakes” that were made in 2011, when US forces left Iraq. The US has about 2,000 troops in Syria.
Mr. Tillerson denied the US was training a Kurdish-led border force, but Turkey accused it of sending mixed signals. “US officials have made statements that refute one another,” said Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, whose country fiercely opposes such a move.
“One day it was said that a new border force had been set up, another day they said they are setting up a unit with local forces in order to maintain security in the region after eliminating Daesh [Islamic State group, or IS] in the region. These are all confusing statements.”
The US secretary of state said officials had “misspoke[n]” when they said the US was planning to set up a 30,000 strong “border security force” in northern Syriaunderpinned by the allied Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia.
Mr. Tillerson said the US was not creating a new force, but rather trying to ensure that local fighters were able to protect liberated areas from attacks by IS remnants.
Turkey’s president branded it a “terror army” and warned of imminent assaults on the Kurdish-controlled border areas of Afrin and Manbij.
The Turkish army opened gaps in the border fence west of Afrin on Thursday, as the state-run Anadolu news agency reported that troops had been put on high alert.
Why Does the US Want to Stay in Syria?
In a speech at Stanford University on Wednesday, Mr. Tillerson said decisive action taken by President Trump had accelerated the progress made against IS. But he noted that IS was “not completely defeated” and that the government of President Bashar al-Assad — who the US opposes and has said should step down from power — controlled about half of Syria’s territory and population.
Rex Tillerson said the US was focused on ensuring IS could not re-emerge. Mr. Tillerson added that the US also faced “continued strategic threats” not just from IS and al-Qaeda, but also from Iran, a key ally of Mr. Assad which he said had strengthened its presence by deploying troops and “importing proxy forces”.
He also said the unresolved plight of the millions of displaced Syrians remained a humanitarian crisis that only a political solution to the civil war could end.
The Syrian government said the continued US military presence represented “a blatant breach of international law and an aggression against national sovereignty”.
What Would Make the US Withdraw?
Mr. Tillerson said the Trump administration desired “five key end states for Syria.”
* IS and al-Qaeda in Syria “suffer an enduring defeat, do not present a threat to the homeland, and do not resurface in a new form”
* The conflict is resolved through a UN-led process, and “a stable, unified, independent Syria, under post-Assad leadership, is functioning as a state”
* Iranian influence in Syria is diminished and Syria’s neighbours are secure
* Conditions are created so displaced people can begin to return to their homes
* Syria is free of weapons of mass destruction
In October, US-backed SDF fighters took full control of the IS stronghold of Raqqa. The Trump administration was implementing a new strategy to achieve those goals, which would largely entail increased diplomatic action, Mr. Tillerson said:
“But let us be clear: The United States will maintain a military presence in Syria focused on ensuring [IS] cannot re-emerge,” he added. “We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011 when a premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into [IS].”
He warned a US withdrawal would also allow al-Qaeda to expand its presence in north-western Syria; restore Mr. Assad and “continue his brutal treatment against his own people”; and provide Iran with the opportunity to strengthen its position.
How Could the US Help Bring Peace to Syria?
Mr. Tillerson promised to carry out “stabilisation initiatives” in areas “liberated” by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a force dominated by a Kurdish militia that Turkey considers a terrorist group.
The initiatives would include clearing land mines, re-opening hospitals, restoring key services and getting children back to school. “We must be clear: ‘stabilisation’ is not a synonym for open-ended nation-building or a synonym for reconstruction. But it is essential,” he added.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are backed by the Russian military.
The US will also seek to “de-escalate” the conflict by negotiating local ceasefires and vigorously support UN efforts to negotiate a political settlement.
Mr. Tillerson said the US believed free and transparent elections that included displaced people would “result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power.”
“This process will take time, and we urge patience,” he added.
Russia and US Engage in ‘Military Base Race’ in Syria
Agnes Helou / Defense News
BEIRUT (January 15, 2018) — A military bases race is underway between Russia and the US as each nation seeks to expand its presence in Syria and counter asymmetric threats.
The US has a military presence in several key locations, but there are two areas with heavy US troop presence that are being transformed to military bases, according to a military source: The first is located in Al Tabaqah near Al Raqqa north Syria, where the US special forces troops are training Kurdish groups; the other is constructed in Al-Tanf where the US troops prevent Syrian and Russian armed forces from crossing.
Al Tabaqah was a Syrian military air base before revolts ended the hold. US also has special operations forces along the Jordan- Iraq- Syria borders in Al Tanf, a crossing where Syrian revolt groups are trained.
The US military presence in Deir Ezzour and in Al Tanf have “sandwiched” this area, impairing Iran’s efforts to build the bridge connecting Iran with the Mediterranean.
By comparison, Russia has two permanent military bases in Syria — an air base in Hmeimim and a naval base in Tartous.
“Russian officials want an immediate exit from Syria because they are aware that if the region’s dynamics are altered, Russia will encounter guerrilla warfare against its presence in Syria,” said Elias Hanna, a retired general of the Lebanese Army, pointing to an attack on Hmeimim by drones from a distance of 50-100 km away Jan. 6.
“It is impossible for an ISIS member to design a drone [able to] travel 50-100 km,” he added. “It needs the capabilities to connect to satellites and GPS” — which is a grave concern to Russia.
After the attack, Russia’s Defense Ministry insinuated the US was involved, saying that the data for the attacks could only have been obtained “from one of the countries that possesses know-how in satellite navigation,” and calling it a “strange coincidence” that a US military intelligence plane was flying over the Mediterranean near the two Russian bases at the moment of the attack. The Pentagon strongly denied any involvement.
The Russian military presence in Syria is based on an agreement signed between the legitimate internationally recognized Syrian government of Assad and the Russians, under which Russia built two permanent bases for an indefinite period of time.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law ratifying a deal with the Syrian government allowing Russia to keep its air base in Syria for almost half a century, according to July 2017 documents.
“Syria is located in a strategic position — it is the gateway to the Middle East and the Gulf; this is why we witness such a competition in sharing influence, not the least of which [involves] constructing military bases,” said retired Lebanese armed forces general Wehbe Katicha. “Note that the Russian arms had a huge increase in exports after the operations in Syria.”
Russia showed its military capabilities in Syria from fighter jets to air defense systems and it used the Syrian conflict as a trial field for its arms. Syria was a defense and military show to start exporting arms to the Gulf and Middle East, and the Saudi S-400 Triumph agreement with Russia is a direct result of this show.
Katicha stressed the strategic influence of Syrian ports that constitute a linking point for trade between the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
“The strategic influence of Syria is at the [core] of the ‘military base race,’ where we witness a competition between major countries to prove their military presence,” he said. “Moreover, Russia is trying to come back as a great power in the region; this is [the reason for] risking extending its military presence in Syria, even though it knows that asymmetric threats might constitute an obstacle.”
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