RAQQA, Syria — 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.
The area is surrounded by powers hostile both to the U.S. presence and the aspirations of the Kurds, who are governing the majority-Arab area in pursuit of a leftist ideology formulated by an imprisoned Turkish Kurdish leader. Signs that the Islamic State is starting to regroup and rumblings of discontent within the Arab community point to the threat of an insurgency.
Without the presence of U.S. troops, these dangers would almost certainly ignite a new war right away, said Ilham Ahmed, a senior official with the Self-Administration of North and East Syria, as the self-styled government of the area is called.
“They have to stay. If they leave and there isn’t a solution for Syria, it will be catastrophic,” she said.
But staying also heralds risk, and already the challenges are starting to mount.
A Turkish threat to invade the area last month forced the United States to scramble patrols along the border with Turkey, which has massed troops and tanks along the frontier. Turkey regards the main Kurdish militia, the YPG, which is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party inside Turkey, as a terrorist organization and fears the consequences for its own security if the group consolidates power in Syria.
Syrian government troops and Iranian proxy fighters are to the south and west. They have threatened to take the area back by force, in pursuit of President Bashar Assad’s pledge to bring all of Syria under government control. The government and Iran have been cultivating ties with local tribes, and the U.S. announcement of its intent to counter the Iranian presence in Syria may, in response, further encourage such ties.
Away from the front lines, the calm that followed the ejection of the Islamic State from Raqqa and the surrounding territory is starting to fray. A series of mysterious bombings and assassinations in some of the areas retaken from the militants up to three years ago has set nerves on edge. Most of the attacks are claimed by the Islamic State, and a U.S. military spokesman, Col. Sean Ryan, said there is no reason to believe the Islamic State is not responsible. “We know they’re regrouping in those areas,” he said.