Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley made a rare, unannounced visit to Syria on Saturday, which was his first trip there as America’s top general. The purpose was to reaffirm the US troop presence and mission there even as the public has by and large grown weary of foreign military entanglements.
An official estimate of some 900 American troops remain in the northeast portion of the country, which is Syria’s oil and gas rich region which before the war supplied the rest of the country. Also the US has troops at Tanf base on the Iraq-Syria border. Milley was asked by reporters if the Pentagon’s presence in Syria was worth the risk. He responded: “If you think that that’s important, then the answer is ‘Yes,'” according Reuters.
The US has long sought to portray their presence as part of a counter-terror and counter-ISIS mission, and when President Trump was in office he admitted it was about “securing the oil”. Ultimately, the US is actively cutting off Damascus from its own badly needed natural resources on top of a sanctions policy aimed at strangling Assad’s Syria. The Pentagon also sees the occupation as about countering Iran, by keeping up pressure on Iran’s ally Damascus.
Naturally, Damascus was outraged at Gen. Milley’s entering sovereign Syrian territory (occupied), with a foreign ministry statement calling it a “flagrant violation of Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and unity.” Turkey has also long wanted to see American troops gone from the region, given they support Kurdish groups which Ankara views as ‘terrorists’.
One likely reason for the weekend trip by Milley is to show the world the US won’t let up pressure on Assad in the wake of the devastating earthquake which resulted in over 50,000 deaths and billions of dollars in damage across both Turkey and Syria. This as the past weeks have seen Arab capitals send representatives to Damascus, while issuing messages of support to Assad and providing humanitarian aid to Syria. Washington is still trying to dissuade the Arab world from re-embracing the Assad government, however.