Since the US-led effort against ISIS has destroyed almost all of the terror group’s territorial sovereignty in Syria, 2,000 or so US forces remain in control of the country’s rich oil fields— something that Iran, Syria’s government, and Russia openly oppose.
But unfortunately for Russia, pro-Syrian government forces, and Iranian militias, there’s not much they can do about it.
A small US presence in a western town called Der Ezzor has maintained an iron grip on the oilfields and even repelled an advance of hundreds of Russian mercenaries and pro-Syrian government forces in a massive battle that became a lopsided win for the US.
Russia has advanced weapons systems in Syria, pro-Syrian militias have capable Russian equipment, and Iran has about 70,000 troops in the country. On paper, these forces could defeat or oust the US and the Syrian rebels it backs, but, in reality, it would likely be a losing battle, according to an expert.
US forces at risk, but not as much as anyone who would attack them
“They have the ability to hurt US soldiers, it’s possible,” Tony Badran, a Syria expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider. But “if they do that, they’ll absolutely be destroyed.”
According to Badran, even if Russia wanted a direct fight against the US military in Syria, something that he and other experts seriously doubt, the Syrian government-aligned forces don’t stand much of a chance.
“I think the cruise missile attack in April 2017 showed, and the ongoing Israeli incursions show, the Russian position and their systems are quite vulnerable,” said Badran, referring to the US’s April 2017 strike on a Syrian airfield in response to a chemical weapons attack in the country. Though Russia has stationed high-end air defenses in Syria to protect its assets, that did not stop the US when President Donald Trump’s administration decided to punish the Syrian air force with 59 cruise missiles.
Russia has just a few dozen jets in Syria, mostly suited for ground-attack roles with some air supremacy fighters. The US has several large bases in the area from which it can launch a variety of strike and fighter aircraft, including the world’s greatest fighter jet, the F-22.
Iran has a large inventory of rockets in and around Syria, according to Badran, but an Iranian rocket attack on US forces would be met by a much larger US retaliation.
“It’s vulnerable,” Badran said of Iran’s military presence in Syria. “It’s exposed to direct US fire, just like it’s exposed to direct Israeli fire.”
If Iran fired a single missile at US forces, “then the bases and depot and crew will be destroyed after that,” said Badran, who added that Iranian forces in Syria have poor supply lines that would make them ill-suited to fighting the US, which has air power and regional assets to move in virtually limitless supplies.
Badran noted that before the US entered the Syrian conflict, ISIS fighters, whose training and equipment pales in comparison to the US’s forces, had good success in disrupting Iranian-aligned militias’ supply lines “even though they’re under bombardment.”
“Imagine what it would be like” if Iranian militias had to fight against the full power of the US military, Badran added.
Syria’s military has struggled for years to take territory from Syrian rebels, some of whom do not receive any funding and backing from the US. With Syria’s government focused on overcoming the civil war in the country’s more populous east, it’s unlikely they could offer any meaningful challenge to US forces in the country’s west.
The US defending itself is a given and Russia, Iran, or Syria would be too bold to question that
“Everybody poses this question as though the US is Luxembourg,” Badran said, comparing the US, which has the most powerful military in the world, to Luxembourg, which has a few hundred troops and only some diplomatic or economic leverage to play with while conducting foreign policy.
For now, the US has announced its intentions to stay in Syria and sit on the oil fields to deny the government the funds to reconstruct the country. Syria’s government has ties to massive human rights violations throughout the seven-year-long civil war and its ruler, Bashar Assad, clings to power in the face of popular uprisings.
While the US has failed to oust Assad or even meaningfully decrease the suffering of Syrian people, it remains a force incredibly capable of defending itself.