In a remote part of Syria’s northeast, a few kilometers from the oil-rich town of Rumeilan, U.S. soldiers are busy helping local Kurdish forces ensure that militants affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) terror group do not again pose a threat to the region.
In March 2019, the U.S. helped defeat IS’s so-called caliphate in eastern Syria. But remnants of the militant group continue to carry out attacks against civilians and U.S.-backed forces throughout eastern Syria.
This U.S. base is one of the first military installations that U.S. troops constructed following the U.S. intervention in Syria in September 2014.
Located on an old countryside road, the base is secured by a tall concrete wall as well as highly protected berms. Inside, an airstrip used for transporting soldiers and military supplies, divides the facility into two spaces, one of which is exclusively occupied by American soldiers.
In late June, VOA gained rare access to the U.S. military facility guarded by Kurdish fighters affiliated with a local military force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been a major U.S. partner in the fight against IS, also known as ISIS and Daesh.
Despite major gains against IS, U.S. military officials stationed in Syria say their counterterrorism mission has not changed.
“We support the SDF in their security operations to counter Daesh,” Col. Richard Locke, who commands a battalion of the U.S. Army, told VOA. “The fight continues against Daesh. We continuously look at degrading their capabilities both from command and control, and the ability for them to take or hold any land.”
In recent months, the SDF has carried out several campaigns targeting IS sleeper cells in the provinces of Hasaka and Deir el-Zour. Hundreds of IS suspects have been detained as a result.
Experts say the SDF would not be able to sustain the effort against IS without a U.S. military presence.
“Without U.S. support, the SDF would be the target of the [Syrian] regime, Russia, and Turkey, all of which have shown neither the ability to fight ISIS effectively nor the capability to appeal to the local Syrian population in post-ISIS areas like the SDF can,” said Nicholas Heras, a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington.
In addition to the U.S., Russia, a staunch supporter of the Syrian government, and Turkey, which opposes Kurdish forces, also have a significant military presence in parts of northeast Syria.
U.S. troops conduct regular patrol missions in northeast Syria, in coordination with their local SDF partners.
“The patrols have a tactical advantage of knowing what is going on within your area,” said Timothy Powell, a U.S. army soldier who has been on several patrols recently.
“Obviously if we stay behind these walls, we won't truly understand the severity of what's going on. But also, it is an enjoyable experience, because we get to see how welcoming the locals are to us, and they're able to share their concerns with us … anything that they want us to be aware of that we can potentially help with,” Powell told VOA.
This week, the SDF said a joint patrol near Deir el-Zour discovered a tunnel system used by IS militants. It was later destroyed by SDF and coalition troops, the SDF said.
U.S. officials say there are about 900 American troops currently deployed in Syria. In addition to military advice and support for local forces, American soldiers also contribute to capacity building on a local level.
“When we go out on our medical missions, we make sure to provide them with enough information to help their community, as well as us [actually] helping them,” said Jordan Sanders, a U.S. Army medic.
“Things such as first aid, when it comes to them, maybe sustaining injuries that have to do with bleeding, we teach them how to stop it, how to treat it, and then so that they can provide their care until they can get to their local hospital as well,” she told VOA.
As long as the U.S.-led global coalition remains committed to its anti-IS effort, American troops say they will continue their mission to bring stability to northeast Syria.