Milley Sneaks into Syria
US top general makes secret trip to American base in Syria after informing Moscow through deconfliction channels says fight with ISIS was worth it
The nearly eight-year-old U.S. deployment to Syria to combat Islamic State is still worth the risk, the top U.S. military officer said on Saturday, after a rare, unannounced visit to a dusty base in the country’s northeast to meet U.S. troops.
Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Syria to assess efforts to prevent a resurgence of the militant group and review safeguards for American forces against attacks, including from drones flown by Iran-backed militia.
While Islamic State is a shadow of the group that ruled over a third of Syria and Iraq in a Caliphate declared in 2014, hundreds of fighters are still camped in desolate areas where neither the U.S.-led coalition nor the Syrian army, with support from Russia and Iranian-backed militias, exert full control.
Soldiers of a Russian military convoy and their US counterparts exchange greetings as their patrol routes intersect in an oil field near Syria’s al-Qahtaniyah town in the northeastern Hasakah province, close to the border with Turkey, on October 8, 2022.DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images
Thousands of other Islamic State fighters are in detention facilities guarded by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, America’s key ally in the country.
American officials say that Islamic State could still regenerate into a major threat.
But the mission, which former President Donald Trump nearly ended in 2018 before softening his withdrawal plans, is remnant of the larger global war against terrorism that had included once the war in Afghanistan and a far larger U.S. military deployment to Iraq.
Asked by reporters traveling with him if he believed the Syria deployment of roughly 900 U.S. troops to Syria was worth the risk, Milley tied the mission to the security of the United States and its allies, saying: “If you think that that’s important, then the answer is ‘Yes.'”
“I happen to think that’s important,” Milley said.
“So I think that an enduring defeat of ISIS and continuing to support our friends and allies in the region … I think those are important tasks that can be done.”
The mission carries risk. Four U.S. troops were wounded during a helicopter raid last month when an Islamic State leader triggered an explosion.
Last month, the U.S. military shot down an Iranian-made drone in Syria that was attempting to conduct reconnaissance on a patrol base in northeastern Syria.
Three drones targeted a U.S. base in January in Syria’s Al-Tanf region. The U.S. military said two of the drones were shot down while the remaining drone hit the compound, injuring two members of the Syrian Free Army forces.
U.S. officials believe drone and rocket attacks are being directed by Iran-backed militia, a reminder of the complex geopolitics of Syria where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad counts on support from Iran and Russia and sees U.S. troops as occupiers.
America’s NATO ally Turkey has also threatened a broad offensive in Syria that would threaten the U.S. military’s Syrian Kurdish partners, who Ankara views as terrorists.
U.S. Army Major General Matthew McFarlane, who commands the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, described attacks against U.S. forces as a “distraction from our main mission.”
“As you know, Syria is a complex environment for us, for the Syrian Democratic Forces, and for Russian forces,” a spokesperson said. “Our sole focus in that environment is the enduring defeat of ISIS. Toward that end, we often share the battlespace with Russian forces and deconfliction and professional courtesy is necessary to drive down the risk of miscalculation.”