After a series of “desert rallies” between Russian and American patrols the US deployed additional military personnel and half a dozen armored Bradley vehicles to Syria. It also sent in radar systems and increased fighter jet patrols over the region to better protect American and coalition forces. According to Pentagon this move aims to send a message to Russia to avoid any unsafe and provocative actions against US military and its allies in the area. Although such move might look like a strong signal, in fact it is rather a symbolic one as it doesn’t have significant impact on the situation in northeastern Syria and here is why.
First, under 100 additional US soldiers, half a dozen of Bradley armored vehicles with additional choppers and jets in the sky can’t change existing status quo in northeastern Syria. This area has already been dominated by US/YPG forces and this nominal increase in US military power doesn’t change the situation on the ground. After Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria the US left just about 500 soldiers in the country which is rather symbolic military presence that is enough to complete American tasks. After ISIS defeat the major task of US presence in northeastern Syria to be a deterrent for Russia, Turkey, Iran and Damascus and provide security guarantees for the Syrian Kurds. Washington needs to keep Turkish military in control to avoid any major operation against Syrian Kurds. At the same time the US doesn’t want Kurds to engage in a meaningful dialog with the Syrian government encouraging Kurdish separatist aspirations. Otherwise, Washington will have no partners on the ground and subsequently no reason to stay in Syria. Therefore, the US continues to play deterrent and spoiler role and this additional military deployment cannot contribute to a significant increase in US military activities in northeastern Syria.
Second, Russia was recently growing its military presence in northeastern Syria near Qamishli. According to reports, Moscow sent up to 75 soldiers and several dozens of military hardware to Qamishli. It is very likely that Washington decided to respond to the Russian activity by sending additional forces to northeastern Syria. Also, Russia recently intensified its attempts to revive dialog between the Syrian Kurds and Damascus which Washington doesn’t want to see. A delegation of the Syrian Democratic Council was hosted in Moscow by the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov for the first time and it signed a memorandum of understanding with Qadri Jamil’s People’s Will Party which represents rather flexible Syrian opposition. The US doesn’t want Kurds to engaged in a dialog with Damascus.
Third, it is clear that such move sent a signal not only to Russia but also to Turkey and Iran reminding them that the US is still in Syria watching their moves and ready to play a spoiler role. The US so far successfully obstructs any major change in status quo in the area, therefore, preventing speedier settlement of the conflict. At the same time, the US doesn’t want to increase its military presence in Syria significantly dragging itself into the conflict again. Such approach makes additional military deployment to Syria rather symbolic.
Fourth, this move should also be viewed from US domestic policy perspective. It targets Trump’s domestic audience month and a half before the elections demonstrating his resolute readiness to protect American forces abroad. It might help Trump to get additional scores in the presidential race as he demonstrates that he will respond to any potentially threatening or provocative Russian moves vis-à-vis US military in Syria.
Fifth, we should remember that Moscow and Washington established deconfliction channel back in 2015 when Russia deployed its military to Syria. This mechanism has been working successfully for already five years and helped so far to avoid any major incident between Russian and US military which could potentially lead to an escalation or direct confrontation. That said, such marginal increase of US military personnel in eastern Syria can hardly complicate communication and deconfliction channel between Russian and US military.
Thus, there is no grounds to believe that the US can change its Syria policy and that this move will alter existing situation on the ground. Quite the opposite – it testifies to the US policy of limited engagement while simultaneously preserving ability to keep the situation in check. In the end, Syria is not on a priority list for the US regardless of who sits or is going to sit in the White House.