The largest American military base in Syria covers more than five hundred acres, but it can’t be seen from the road. When I visited in mid-October, on the condition that I not reveal the exact location, I thought my taxi-driver had brought me to the wrong place. All I saw were a few Kurdish soldiers standing around a barricade. But, past the checkpoint and up a hill, a vast encampment spread out before us. The perimeter was constructed of dirt berms, sod-filled gabions, and razor wire. The runway was more than a mile long, and sunk below grade, so that planes would seem to disappear as they landed. There were hastily constructed wood buildings, huge clamshell tents, stacks of shipping containers, rows of white trucks and sport-utility vehicles, prefabricated trailers housing showers and latrines, and a dusty athletics field where soldiers were jogging around a track in the desert twilight.
Inside the main gate were soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, and many others in civilian attire wearing sidearms or carrying assault rifles. Quite a few were women. Everyone looked well fed. There was a telecommunications tower, and the Wi-Fi was the best I’d had in weeks of reporting around Syria. A small store sold cigarettes, snacks, candy, energy drinks, and protein powder, as well as cheap souvenirs like kaffiyehs and fake daggers. For fifteen dollars, I bought a sweatshirt that said “Syriagonia” instead of Patagonia.
The American intervention in Syria, now in its fourth year, began as a small Special Forces mission of the kind the Pentagon is currently running in a dozen countries. In the fall of 2015, when President Barack Obama deployed fifty commandos to advise the Syrian Kurds in their war with the Islamic State, his Administration denied that he was breaking his promise not to put “boots on the ground.” “We have run special ops already,” Obama said, “and, really, this is just an extension.” Since then, the number of military personnel in-country has steadily grown, first to two hundred and fifty, then to five hundred, then to two thousand, and there’s reason to believe the true figure is now twice that. (During a press briefing in October, 2017, an Army general let slip that the number was four thousand.) Congress has not authorized military action in Syria, nor is there a United Nations mandate permitting the use of force. Nevertheless, over the last three years, the mission has morphed into something more like a conventional ground war. The United States has built a dozen or more bases from Manbij to Al-Hasakah, including four airfields, and American-backed forces now control all of Syria east of the Euphrates, an area about the size of Croatia. Four U.S. service members have died in Syria. But, because Operation Inherent Resolve, as the Pentagon calls its mission here, falls under the authority of the Joint Special Operations Command, known as jsoc, basic facts are kept classified, including the cost of the mission, the units involved, where they are located, and the number of wounded, which is believed to be substantial.
The stated purpose of the operation, which also comprises western Iraq, is to defeat the Islamic State. Under Obama, an American-backed, Kurdish-led coalition of militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F., seizedisis territory through 2016, in large part thanks to American airpower, which decimated isis positions in advance of the Kurdish infantry. The S.D.F. had the Islamic State’s capital city, Raqqa, surrounded by that winter, but the offensive stalled when Donald Trump took office. Trump and his family have financial ties to Turkey, whose Islamist government under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is violently hostile to ethnic minorities, especially the Kurds. For three months, Trump’s generals tried and failed to come up with an alternative plan. In the end, Trump quietly doubled down on Obama’s strategy and upped the number of commandos, sent conventional troops, including marines, and reinforced the S.D.F. with weapons and vehicles. Raqqa fell to the S.D.F. in October of 2017, and the Islamic State ceased to exist as a territorial polity.