With U.S. goals expanding and Islamic State nearing defeat, the tangled seven-year war in Syria is growing more complicated as Iran gains the upper hand, Turkey launches a military offensive and Israel is increasingly alarmed by threats to its security.
The risk of a dangerous escalation was clear Tuesday with reports that U.S. airstrikes last week had killed several Russian paramilitary contractors during an attack by pro-government forces on a U.S.-backed militia base in eastern Syria that housed a small number of U.S. troops.
That comes after a week in which Turkey, Russia, Iran and Israel all lost aircraft to hostile fire in Syria’s increasingly crowded skies.
What began as a civil war in 2011, with U.S.-backed rebels opposed to President Bashar Assad, is now a free-for-all of outside states trying to divide the spoils and expand influence in the Middle East. Assad remains in power and Washington and its allies appear most at risk of losing out, according to diplomats, aid workers and other analysts.
The U.S. role in Syria has expanded under the Trump administration. Until recently, U.S. policy focused primarily on defeating Islamic State, delivering humanitarian aid to civilian communities after critical battles and supporting diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. Washington otherwise sought to avoid a broader entanglement in another Middle East war.
Last month, however, the State Department announced that the Pentagon would keep 2,000 U.S. special operations forces, as well as diplomatic teams and others, in the country indefinitely to mop up the remaining militants and to ensure “Iranian influence in Syria is diminished, and Syria’s neighbors are secure,” a much murkier goal.
“Our military and civilian personnel on the ground in Syria will be targeted, eventually,” Robert S. Ford, who left Syria in 2011 as the last U.S. ambassador to serve in Damascus, warned Congress last week. “The Syrian and Iranian governments, and Russia, all want us out of Syria.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on a six-day mission through the Middle East, emphasized the effort to finish off Islamic State, which has been pushed into a sliver of territory in eastern Syria.
The group "remains a very determined enemy and is not yet defeated,” Tillerson said Tuesday in Kuwait City at a conference dedicated to raising money for reconstruction in Iraq.
Baghdad estimates it needs $88 billion to rebuild from the widespread destruction left by Islamic State’s occupation of cities and towns, and the bitter battle to eject them, which ended in December.
"If communities in Iraq and Syria cannot return to normal life, we risk the return of conditions that allowed [Islamic State] to take and control vast territory," he said.
But Tillerson offered no U.S. funds for the reconstruction, urging other countries to foot the bill instead, a sign of the growing frustration at the White House with the impact of foreign aid.
On Monday, President Trump complained at the White House that U.S. aid expenditures in the Middle East were “a mistake” and were “stupidly” spent, erroneously claiming that the United States had spent $7 trillion in the region since 2001.
U.S. aid is substantial, but far less than that. In the first decade after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States spent $60 billion in what a Pentagon audit report later concluded was a largely failed effort to rebuild the war-torn country.
Yet the urgency of Iraq’s condition is just part of the constellation of conflict revolving around Syria.
U.S.-backed Syrian militias continue to fight in eastern Syria, where Islamic State retains a foothold in the Euphrates River Valley, near the border with Iraq.
Turkish military forces have assaulted Afrin, a Syrian enclave near the Turkish border that is controlled by U.S.-backed Kurds. Ankara views the Kurds as an extension of a group that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey, and has threatened to advance on Manbij, another Kurdish-controlled area where U.S. troops are based.
Israel, in turn, has grown increasingly alarmed about the presence of Iranian forces and allied militias, including the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, in southern Syria near the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan Heights. Their presence and influence has grown as Assad has become more secure.
On Saturday, Israel launched a series of airstrikes in Syria after it detected an Iranian surveillance drone in Israeli airspace, and an Israeli jet was downed in Syria. Israel’s security is a U.S. priority, and the danger is that U.S. forces could get dragged into direct conflict with Iranian militias.
With reconstruction of Syria looming, Iraq has served as a dramatic sign of what’s to come. It has essentially been bombed back a decade.
Islamic State’s black flags no longer fly over Iraqi towns and villages. But the recapture of the vast territory it once held, especially in the north and west, came at an enormous cost to their residents.
Months of punishing airstrikes and door-to-door fighting left neighborhoods in ruins. As the militants withdrew, they destroyed schools, hospitals, bridges, electricity and water systems. The United Nations estimated 40,000 homes were damaged or destroyed just in Mosul, the largest city to fall under Islamic State control.
Residents are dipping into savings, selling family gold or borrowing money to make needed repairs. But the scale of the destruction in sectors that suffered the worst of the fighting is overwhelming.
At a meeting Monday on the sidelines of the Kuwait conference, nongovernmental groups pledged more than $330,000 in aid for Iraq. The country will look to the private sector to foot most of the bill, arguing there are profits to be made in reconstruction.
Iraqi officials sought to reassure potential investors that they are taking serious steps to cut red tape and curb rampant corruption, but convincing them may be a challenge. Just about every country represented has companies that are owed money by the Iraqi government.
“I think it’s impressive the government is addressing this honestly and openly,” said Lise Grande, the U.N. Development Program’s representative in Iraq. But, she added, “I think many investors need to see the track record on these reforms.”
The Trump administration and its Western allies have been counting on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to underwrite the long-term reconstruction. But a costly Saudi war in Yemen and a sharp decline in oil prices have limited their interest.
A failure at the Kuwait conference could jeopardize the hard-won successes against Islamic State, experts warn.
The militants have proved adept at exploiting festering grievances among Sunni Arabs against Iraq’s Shiite-led government. A failure to rebuild also would play into the hands of Iran, which long has argued to Iraq’s leaders that they can’t rely on their Western allies.
“If you don’t help these areas recover, then you are basically setting yourself up for the next fight,” said Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.
Los Angeles Times staff writers Zavis reported from Beirut and Wilkinson from Washington, D.C.