Verdict content: On February 8, the Russian Defense Ministry accused the U.S. of being more concerned with seizing “economic assets” than fighting the Islamic State. This came in response to a report that U.S.-led coalition forces had carried out a series of air and artillery strikes against pro-Assad forces, which, according to coalition sources, killed an estimated 100 fighters.
A spokesman for the coalition claimed that the strikes were in self-defense, and that the pro-Syrian government force launched a well-supported attack against the positions of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Russian Defense Ministry stated that the pro-government militia force was carrying out a reconnaissance mission near an oil refinery not far from the town of Salhiyah.
Regardless of what actually happened in the incident, Russian claims that the U.S. has not been focused on fighting IS in Syria are demonstrably false. The Syrian Democratic Forces, organized by the Kurdish YPG/YPJ, have played an instrumental role in the defeat of IS since 2014. With ground and air support from the U.S. military and its coalition partners, the Kurdish forces pushed the Islamic State forces back to their capital of Raqqa and liberated that city last October.
Additionally, since the U.S. and its coalition allies launched Operation Inherent Resolve in 2014, they have carried out thousands of airstrikes against Islamic State targets. However, the air campaign has raised concerns about civilian casualties, as has Russia’s pro-regime bombing campaign.
With IS all but defeated in Syria and Iraq, experts and U.S. administration critics raise concern over the legality of the U.S. military presence in Syria, which includes Marine artillery units and special operations forces supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces and other moderate rebel groups.The U.S. told the United Nations in 2014 its presence in Syria was justified defense of the U.S. and its allies against IS and al-Qaida. Some members of Congress raise concern that there is no clear legal authorization under the U.S. War Powers Act.
On January 18, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the U.S .planned to have an open-ended presence in Syria, in order to ensure that local fighters are able to secure their territory against IS insurgents.Following Tillerson’s comments, international law experts such as Professor Oona Hathaway of Yale Law School say long term U.S. presence in Syria violates international law. Following the incident near Salhiyah, such misgivings have been heightened, especially as the situation on the ground becomes more complicated with increased Russian and Turkish involvement on the battlefield. While the Western experts raise concerns about the legality of the mission, as does the Russian Defense Ministry, they do not say the U.S. seeks Syria’s economic assets.