As a US-led barrage of missiles rained down on suspected Syrian chemical weapons sites this weekend, Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford said the Pentagon would be taking greater precautions to protect 2,000 American troops on the ground.
The strikes came as US troops, whom the Pentagon says are in-country to stop the resurgence of the Islamic State, already face increasing risks of getting enmeshed in the wider civil war. Military commanders are particularly worried about the rising risk of an unintended confrontation with Russia, especially after a deadly clash with Russian mercenaries in February.
“The commander always takes prudent measures, especially in an environment that they were in tonight,” Dunford told reporters at the Pentagon. “So they did make adjustments.”
Ahead of the strikes, the Pentagon reportedly pushed back against more expansive options favored by the White House in a weeklong bureaucratic tug-of-war. Dunford and Defense Secretary James Mattis raised concerns that US troops would be vulnerable to Russian or Syrian retaliation.
In February, for instance, American troops and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces waged a pitched battle near a base in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zor that left an estimated 200 to 300 Russian paramilitaries dead. Soon after, US military officials said that pro-regime forces allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had begun massing in the area, near Syria’s largest oil field.
US patrols in the northern city of Manbij also face persistent fire from Turkish-backed troops hoping to push Kurdish fighters out of the area. Though Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White expressed hope this week that this weekend’s strikes could resuscitate UN-backed peace talks, experts say violence could increase as Assad and others move to consolidate their power.
“The major violence we’re seeing right now — outside Damascus, the Turkish assault on Afrin — essentially is to consolidate spheres of influence,” said Alexander Bick, a former Syria director on the National Security Council. “We are creeping toward a de facto partition: If this happens, you could call it a hot peace, you could call it a frozen conflict.”
Mattis’ reluctance to see US troops get bogged down in the wider war is also shared by many US commanders. And President Donald Trump himself has signaled his desire to withdraw from Syria “very soon.”
To limit the risks, the United States and Russia have set up a “deconfliction” phone line between their front lines in Syria. Dunford said the Pentagon used the line to prevent casualties during this weekend’s strikes.
The reassurances come after Special Operations Command chief Raymond Thomas said last month that 2,000 American troops sent to fight the Islamic State in Syria are now “mired” in the yearslong civil war after the clash with Russian paramilitaries in February. Thomas told cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point that Russia had ignored repeated warnings from US military leaders on the hotline as Kremlin-hired troops attacked an American base in Syria in February.
“We warned them,” Thomas said. “A graduate of this institution was on the phone, a one-star, was on the phone with his counterpart saying we see you coming, do not do this, and his Russian counterpart kept saying, nope, not us, you got it wrong. It’s not our people, we’re not coming your way.”
Thomas added, “They kept pressing, they started bracketing us with artillery, it was game on. Lowest score wins: US zero, Russia 300.” This prompted cheers from cadets in the West Point crowd.
Thomas’ remarks, which were recently uploaded to West Point’s website but appear to have been taken down, appear to contradict previous Pentagon statements that the deconfliction phone line between US and Russian lines “served its purpose” during the attack as officials from both countries remained in contact. Mattis has indicated that Moscow had little control over the units involved. Although CIA Director Mike Pompeo said “a couple hundred” Russians died in the attack during his Senate confirmation hearing to be secretary of state last week, the Pentagon has publicly only described the group as Syrian “pro-regime” forces.
While the Pentagon appeared concerned about falling deeper into the conflict during the debate over the strikes, experts say US generals such as Thomas are also trying to deter the Russians from moving on US troops again.
“It’s to say to Russia, don’t get cute with us,” said Nick Heras, a Middle East fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. “He’s sending a signal: Don’t have your little green men running around Syria, this isn’t the Ukraine.”