This ruined, fearful city was once the Islamic State’s capital, the showcase of its caliphate and a magnet for foreign fighters from around the globe.
Now it lies at the heart of the United States’ newest commitment to a Middle East war.
The commitment is small, a few thousand troops who were first sent to Syria three years ago to help the Syrian Kurds fight the Islamic State. President Donald Trump indicated in March that the troops would be brought home once the battle is won, and the latest military push to eject the group from its final pocket of territory recently got underway.
In September, however, the administration switched course, saying the troops will stay in Syria pending an overall settlement to the Syrian war and with a new mission: to act as a bulwark against Iran’s expanding influence.
That decision puts U.S. troops in overall control, perhaps indefinitely, of an area comprising nearly a third of Syria, a vast expanse of mostly desert terrain roughly the size of Louisiana.
The Pentagon does not say how many troops are there. Officially, they number 503, but earlier this year an official let slip that the true number may be closer to 4,000. Most are Special Operations forces, and their footprint is light. Their vehicles and convoys rumble by from time to time along the empty desert roads, but it is rare to see U.S. soldiers in towns and cities.
The new mission raises new questions, about the role they will play and whether their presence will risk becoming a magnet for regional conflict and insurgency.
SOURCE: LIZ SLY | The Washington Post