The nearly eight-year-old U.S. deployment to Syria to combat Islamic State is still worth the risk, the top U.S. military officer said on Saturday, after a rare, unannounced visit to a dusty base in the country's northeast to meet U.S. troops.
Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Syria to assess efforts to prevent a resurgence of the militant group and review safeguards for American forces against attacks, including from drones flown by Iran-backed militia.
While Islamic State is a shadow of the group that ruled over a third of Syria and Iraq in a Caliphate declared in 2014, hundreds of fighters are still camped in desolate areas where neither the U.S.-led coalition nor the Syrian army, with support from Russia and Iranian-backed militias, exert full control.
Thousands of other Islamic State fighters are in detention facilities guarded by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, America's key ally in the country.
American officials say that Islamic State could still regenerate into a major threat.
But the mission, which former President Donald Trump nearly ended in 2018 before softening his withdrawal plans, is remnant of the larger global war against terrorism that had included once the war in Afghanistan and a far larger U.S. military deployment to Iraq.
Asked by reporters traveling with him if he believed the Syria deployment of roughly 900 U.S. troops to Syria was worth the risk, Milley tied the mission to the security of the United States and its allies, saying: "If you think that that's important, then the answer is 'Yes.'"
"I happen to think that's important," Milley said.
"So I think that an enduring defeat of ISIS and continuing to support our friends and allies in the region … I think those are important tasks that can be done."
The mission carries risk. Four U.S. troops were wounded during a helicopter raid last month when an Islamic State leader triggered an explosion.
Last month, the U.S. military shot down an Iranian-made drone in Syria that was attempting to conduct reconnaissance on a patrol base in northeastern Syria.
Three drones targeted a U.S. base in January in Syria's Al-Tanf region. The U.S. military said two of the drones were shot down while the remaining drone hit the compound, injuring two members of the Syrian Free Army forces.
U.S. officials believe drone and rocket attacks are being directed by Iran-backed militia, a reminder of the complex geopolitics of Syria where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad counts on support from Iran and Russia and sees U.S. troops as occupiers.
America's NATO ally Turkey has also threatened a broad offensive in Syria that would threaten the U.S. military's Syrian Kurdish partners, who Ankara views as terrorists.
U.S. Army Major General Matthew McFarlane, who commands the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, described attacks against U.S. forces as a "distraction from our main mission."
McFarlane cited progress against Islamic State, including through the reduction in the numbers of internally displaced people at refugee camps — a pool of vulnerable people who could be recruited by Islamic State.
The al-Hol camp houses around more than 50,000 people, including Syrians, Iraqis and other nationals who fled the conflict, and McFarlane estimated around 600 babies were born there every year.
Lieutenant Kamal Alsawafy from the Michigan National Guard is one of the U.S. soldiers in Syria helping provide security for Iraqis leaving al-Hol to be repatriated back to Iraq in protected convoys.
The son of Iraqi refugees who emigrated to the United States, Alsawafy said helping Iraqi refugees brings him joy and described watching people at al-Hol cheering as Iraqis departed the camps for better lives back in Iraq.
"It's a good feeling," Alsawafy said.
McFarlane said he believed there would come a time when U.S. partners in Syria could manage on their own. But there is no publicly known target date to complete that transition.
"Over time, I do envision us transitioning when the conditions are met, where our partners can independently have a sustainable capacity and capability to keep ISIS in check," he said.