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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

US bolsters existing military presence in Syria, suggesting indefinite stay 

More than 2,000 American troops are already stationed in Syria 

<p>US-backed coalition forces driving in the northern Syrian town of Manbij. Delil&nbsp;Souleiman / AFP</p>
<p>US-backed coalition forces driving in the northern Syrian town of Manbij. Delil&nbsp;Souleiman / AFP</p>

The Pentagon appears to be strengthening its presence in northern Syria, making a US military departure from the country seem increasingly unlikely.

Residents of eastern Syria told The National that US troops have in fact been preparing for what seems like a prolonged stay, suggesting that President Donald Trump may have back-pedalled on his wish to bring American troops home "relatively soon".

More than 2,000 troops are already stationed on approximately a dozen bases in eastern Syria on an anti-ISIS mission.

Reports emerged this week that the US had been reinforcing two of their existing positions near the city of Hasakeh, one of them close to the village of Tel Baydar, where the US is said to have recently improved a runway.

“There is a concrete perimeter wall now with guards and watching towers in addition to a ditch all around the base," Samer Al Ahmed, a researcher from Hasakah and now based in Gaziantep, told The National.

"There are also reinforcements and heavy machinery that are entering the place. There is even a runway for helicopters,” said Mr Al Ahmed, who works at the Harmoon Center for Contemporary studies

There were also reports on Thursday that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the militia that holds the bulk of the ground where the US is present, would resume operations against ISIS, further justifying a continued American presence.

But ISIS is not the only reason why many Kurdish residents of eastern Syria hope the US will stay.

The SDF is largely made up of Syrian Kurdish fighters affiliated with a militia called the People’s Protection Units (YPG). In March they saw themselves forced to stop anti-ISIS operations when they withdrew from eastern Syria to fight a Turkish military incursion further east in Afrin.

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The SDF and YPG control about a quarter of Syria, while Turkey backs a rival Syrian militia known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that has recently taken over much of the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border.

That campaign has been accompanied by widespread reports that the FSA forcibly displaced large numbers of Kurds, and in some cases is already repopulating towns and villages with Arabs from other parts of the country.

“The American presence aims at deterring any attack on the area and preventing clashes between FSA and SDF,” said Mr Al Ahmed.

Support for the US in the predominantly Kurdish areas has been driven by the Turkish incursion.

“What the Kurds have witnessed in Afrin helped only enhance Kurdish fears. On the other hand, they have a long experience with the Syrian government and they don’t trust it,” said Alan Hassan, a journalist in the Kurdish Syrian city of Qamishli. “For these reasons, the vast majority here think positively of the American presence.”

“There haven’t been many problems in the east of [the] Euphrates so far, but the people here are worried that there will be more problems to come ... because it is the richest area in Syria,” said Mr Hassan.

“The people here want to have an international guarantor who can guarantee that there will be no massacres against anyone and to help reach a political solution,” he said.

The remaining ISIS forces, for now, are largely confined to pockets of territory along the border between Iraq and Syria.

“After eliminating ISIS, the Americans are trying to work with the civil society and the tribal leaders. They are working for ‘peace partners’ now. The SDF were war partners and their role is coming to an end,” said Abdul Qader Akoub, a political activist from Hasakeh.

US civilian personnel responsible for the humanitarian efforts are continuously re-evaluating the situation, but had not received indication that any changes were imminent.

“The stabilisation effort is a ‘Herculean task.’ The Raqqa Civil Council (RCC) is striving to meet the critical needs of returning Syrians," said a US government official familiar with the efforts."But this will be a long, deliberate process given the scale of destruction and ongoing needs. Part of the stabilisation effort includes capacity building for the RCC.”

But the US is not alone. At the largest American position in northern Syria, a cement factory near the city of Kobani, residents said there are also Danish and French special forces. Those countries may also expand their presence.

“Yesterday, the French went and took Al Alyah, which is an old military position for the (Syrian) regime in southern Ras Al Ayn,” Mr Al Ahmed told The National on Wednesday. “This could turn into a French base.”

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Eastern Syria is also a major agricultural area and the location of most of the country’s petrochemical resources. The US has taken positions at some of the country’s most significant oil and gas fields and processing facilities. However, Syria's resources are far more important internally than they are to the global market.

“One of the most important American locations is in the Conoco oil facility. However, America isn't that naïve to come to Syria for oil or gas,” said Mr Akoub.

“They are here as a political step to keep on top of things in Syria. They are keeping a symbolic presence to stop the advance of the Russians and the Iranians. It is a strategic area in the full sense of the word. I believe the Americans will stay for a long time in Syria, even if it were only a symbolic presence.”

Abdulselam Mohamed, a professor at Rojava University in Qamishli, is adamant that Syria's Kurds want to be a political ally, not just a military one.

The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters earlier this week that the US had “no intention” of leaving.

"As I have said many times, the United States have assured us upon oath that their only goal is to drive out terrorists, to take over so-called Islamic State,” Mr Lavrov said, using a different name for ISIS.

“But against their own statements - and by the way against the statements by President Trump - today the United States are actively making themselves comfortable on the right bank of the Euphrates and have no intention to leave as they create local power structures."

Russia itself has a major presence across the country, with ground and air forces having intervened on behalf of the Syrian government since 2015.

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