No Clear End Game For U.S. Military In Iraq And Syria

Oct 17, 2017
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The fight against ISIS is what led the United States to send troops into Iraq and Syria. And now that ISIS has lost nearly all its territory in these countries, what are U.S. troops going to do? To answer that question, we have NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey there.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So we just heard from Ruth that the fall of the city of Raqqa is imminent. What will U.S. troops in Syria do once that happens?

BOWMAN: Well, Kelly, the next step will likely be helping local forces clean up the remaining pockets of ISIS fighters south of Raqqa and down the Euphrates River valley toward the Iraqi border. Now, this will take some time. You're talking about 150 miles or so. And here's the thing. A particular challenge now is you have Syrian government forces, Iranian-backed militias and even Russian forces along the path here. So the U.S. will have to coordinate as it already has been doing with Russia. But it makes it particularly difficult. You could see skirmishes here between those forces and the U.S.-backed rebels.

And I was talking with a U.S. military official, Kelly, who said, you're fast coming to a point where the Syrian government may tell the U.S. to leave the country. After all, the United States' troops were not invited into Syria, only Russian and Iranian forces were there of course to prop up the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. But again, the fighting in Syria will likely go on for many more weeks, if not months.

MCEVERS: And the other ISIS stronghold of course was in Iraq next door. ISIS was forced out of Mosul, their stronghold there a few months ago. So now the same question - I mean, what is the role of U.S. forces who are still in Iraq?

BOWMAN: So you're right. Most of the ISIS strongholds have been retaken by Iraqi and Kurdish forces with U.S. help. The role now is to help Iraqi forces basically mop up the final ISIS areas, and they're mostly along the Iraqi border with Syria, down in the southwest in Anbar province. So there aren't really that many areas left. They shouldn't take a lot of time.

MCEVERS: Once ISIS is pushed out from some of these places - these places are still disputed areas, and people are fighting over who gets to come back. In Iraq, you have the city of Kirkuk where you have two different factions, both of them American allies, fighting against each other - the Kurds and forces from the central government in Baghdad. So what is the U.S. role in that fight?

BOWMAN: You know, you're right, Kelly. ISIS was something of a unifying cause. The ISIS fight covered up political fault lines. And one U.S. official I spoke with said, you're now entering a phase that could be even more dangerous and more complex than the ISIS fight itself. And I think that's because there was no doubt ISIS was going to be defeated. It was just a matter of time. But now you have some of the Iraqi Kurds in the north who were trained and equipped by the U.S. to fight ISIS voting for independence and now taking on the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, also trained and equipped by the U.S. to fight ISIS.

Now, the Iraqi government recently sent troops to take back areas around the northern city of Kirkuk, as you mentioned. These areas were being held by the Kurds. There were oil fields and bases, government offices. And at least 10 were killed on both sides, although the Kurds say many more. Now, these areas were always part of the Iraqi government. The problem is the Kurds just don't see it that way. You could see more fighting in the coming days and weeks. We just don't know yet.

MCEVERS: Right. So does that mean the U.S. is sitting back and watching all this happen? I mean, there's this victory on one side, right? We've done what we came to do, which was get ISIS out of this territory. But we have to now sit back while other things fall apart.

BOWMAN: Right. Again, I think you're heading into an area where it's much more politically divisive here in both countries, really. I think both Iraq and Syria the U.S. wants to remain intact as sovereign countries. In Iraq, again, they want all these three groups to work together. And the U.S. will have a long-term relationship where it continues to train Iraqi forces and really serves as a counterweight to any influence from Iran next door.

And in Syria, the U.S. hopes that Assad will transition to a new government and that the U.S.-backed rebel fighters will have a seat at the table when a new government is formed. But Assad and Russia and Iran may have other plans and just push out the U.S. and also its local allies.

MCEVERS: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.