The United States quietly withdrew Army National Guard M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles from Eastern Syria less than two months after making a very public show of sending the armored vehicles to that country late last year. This revelation comes amid continuing questions about the future of the U.S. military presence in Syria, in general.
U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel David Olson, a spokesperson for U.S. Army Central and Third Army, the service's top headquarters for operations across the Middle East, confirmed to The War Zone that the Bradleys and other elements of the South Carolina Army National Guard's 4th Battalion, 118th Infantry Regiment, had withdrawn from Syria by the end of November 2019. The armored infantry fighting vehicles and accompanying infantry and other support elements had first deployed to sites in the Eastern Syrian province of Deir Ez Zor on Oct. 31, 2019. That came in the wake of a hasty withdrawal of other U.S. forces in the region in the aftermath of a major Turkish military incursion into Northern Syria, aimed primarily at ejecting the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the area.
"A few M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles did deploy to Syria in late October 2019, but returned to Kuwait in November," Olson explained. "They were part of a security force that protected the oil fields in Syria from ISIS until we withdrew our troops in November."
Olson also confirmed that there were no other elements of the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team still in Syria. 4-118th Infantry is part of the 30th, which first deployed to Kuwait at the beginning of October 2019 as part of a nine-month rotation in support of Operation Spartan Shield, a standing regional contingency operation.
It is not entirely clear how long it took the Army to redeploy the Bradleys and other personnel from 4-118th Infantry from Syria to Kuwait. Publicly released pictures show at least some of the armored vehicles at the U.S. military-operated portion of Erbil International Airport in the city of the same name in Northern Iraq, about to be airlifted, likely to Kuwait, in December 2019. U.S. Air Force C-17A Globemaster III cargo aircraft had flown the vehicles and associated personnel and equipment into Syria at the beginning of the deployment.
We also don't know if any additional U.S. forces deployed to Eastern Syria to take over for the departing elements of the 4-118th Infantry. However, there are no Bradley-equipped units publicly forward-deployed to the region at present that do not belong to the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team and Lieutenant Colonel Olson says that the brigade as a whole does not have any personnel presently in Syria.
There are still American troops in Deir Ez Zor, including at a site known as Green Village and another one within the Conoco gas field. On Jan. 24, 2020, U.S. Army Specialist Antonio Moore, assigned to the Army Reserve's 363rd Engineer Battalion, part of the 411th Engineer Brigade, died when his vehicle rolled over at an unspecified location in the province. The Pentagon said that Moore was taking part in a "route clearance" operation, which involves patrolling roads to sweep for mines, improvised explosive devices, and other hazards to ensure they remain safe to travel on. The War Zone was among the first to report on the presence of dedicated Army route clearance units in Syria in 2017.
Between 500 and 600 American personnel remain in Syria in total at a number of forward operating bases, according to a recent report from The Washington Post. Beyond the locations in Deir Ez Zor, other personnel are situated in the northeast corner of Syria, as well as at a garrison at At Tanf to the southeast near the borders with Iraq and Jordan.
At the time of writing, U.S. Army Central and Third Army have not yet responded to follow-up questions about whether the withdrawal of the Bradleys and the rest of the contingent from 4-118th Infantry was scheduled or whether they left early in response to shifting operational requirements. So, it is possible that commanders on the ground determined that there was no longer a need for the additional firepower, protection, and situational awareness the armored vehicles offered with their 25mm Bushmaster cannons, TOW anti-tank missiles, and onboard electro-optical and infrared optics.
As we at The War Zone
had noted when the U.S. military first announced the deployment, the Bradleys also presented a major logistical burden, especially when forward-deployed to austere locations. It was always unclear how long the Army would be able to adequately sustain the armored vehicles and the rest of the contingent from 4-118th Infantry in Eastern Syria.
Regardless, we do know that the U.S. military was still eager to highlight the presence of the Bradleys into November. "The most important story is the Bradleys," U.S. Army spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Cynthia King told reporters, as you can see in the video below, during an officially sanctioned visit to Deir Ez Zor to see the vehicles and learn about the U.S. mission in Syria during the second week of the month. "Combat power, that’s what the Bradley brings to the fight," she continued.
Of course, there is nothing, necessarily, to prevent the United States from redeploying Bradleys back to eastern Syria, if the need arises again. The U.S. military has now demonstrated its ability to move heavy armored forces to forward locations in the region on relatively short notice. Still, the short duration of the Bradleys' time in Syria last year can only raise new questions about the future of the U.S. military's mission in Deir Ez Zor, as well as the country as a whole. American forces and their coalition partners only recently resumed operations against ISIS terrorists following a halt to those activities in both Syria and Iraq in the aftermath of the drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, then head of Iran's Quds Force, in Baghdad on Jan. 3, 2020.
U.S. forces throughout the Middle East had refocused their attention to defending themselves against any retaliatory attacks, a decision that seemed prudent in light of an unprecedented Iranian ballistic missile strike aimed at American forces in Iraq on Jan. 7. The U.S. government now says that 34 troops were injured in that strike, including a large number of traumatic brain injuries. U.S. diplomatic and military personnel in Iraq have also been subjected to repeated rocket attacks in recent months, including one that occurred just overnight that caused minor damage and injured at least one individual within the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad.
"I frankly don’t know how long we’re going to be here," U.S. Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, presently the head of U.S. Central Command, said during a visit to U.S. facilities in Syria, according to The Washington Post. “And I have no instructions other than to continue to work with our partner [the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF] here."
U.S. Air Force Major General Alexus Grynkewich, who is the Deputy Commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the official name of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, had told reporters on Jan. 23 that the SDF were the ones primarily responsible for securing what is now referred to as the "eastern Syria security area" in Deir Ez Zor. "The task to defend the oilfields, to make sure that ISIS can't get access to those resources, that's also being done in concert with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who frankly benefit from having access to those resources themselves as well," he said.
At the same time, President Donald Trump has repeatedly voiced his desire to withdraw all American forces from Syria, which he has described in the past as little more than "sand and death." U.S. military personnel have already ceded a number of forward operating bases to Turkish forces, as well as their local partners, along with Russian troops, who are operating under a separate deal that Moscow cut with Ankara in late 2019.
There have been an increasing number of altercations between U.S. and Russian forces in northeastern Syria in recent weeks, where American troops have sought to block Russia's personnel from continuing their patrols into certain areas closer to the Iraqi border. There are still unconfirmed reports of an actual fistfight between the parties last month. The U.S. Special Representative for Syria Ambassador James Jeffery acknowledged "dustups" had occurred during a press conference on Jan. 24, but downplayed the apparent tensions.
It's worth noting that, despite their ostensible counter-ISIS mission, the Bradleys had also presented a more tangible threat to more heavily armed and armored Russian troops, as well as other contingents aligned with the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad. In 2018, it took withering U.S. airpower to brush back Russian mercenaries and Syrian militiamen equipped with T-72 tanks and heavy artillery that had attempted to eject SDF units and their American advisors from the Conoco gas field in Deir Ez Zor.
"Our mission in Syria today remains the same as it was when we first began operations in 2014; to enable the enduring defeat of Daesh," the CJTF-OIR public affairs office told The War Zone, using another name for ISIS, in response to questions about the Bradleys and the continued U.S. presence in eastern Syria. "ISIS fighters are still operating in the region and relentless pressure from our SDF partners is keeping them from resurging. We are maintaining our presence in northeast Syria and at At Tanf garrison to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS and deny ISIS access to oil fields in NE [northeastern] Syria."
How the American military's posture in Syria continues to evolve in 2020, especially given heightened tensions with Iran and its proxies throughout the Middle East, remains to be seen. What we do know for sure is that, at least for the moment, the presence of U.S. heavy armored forces in eastern Syria was brief, despite how heavily U.S. officials promoted the deployment.
U.S. Army Central and Third Army spokesperson U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel David Olson has provided The War Zone with additional information about the deployment of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles and other elements of the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team to Syria. Approximately 100 members of the brigade actually are still in Syria "doing some logistical and support tasks in Syria," Olson said, but confirmed again that the heavy armored vehicles were withdrawn last year. "So, they were not replaced" directly with additional forces, he added.
"The Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFVs) were in Syria for a short period of time as part of a security force to guard oil fields. Commanders routinely reposition forces and equipment to respond to needs based on an assessment of mission requirements on the ground," he continued. "In this case, the mission requirements changed so we removed the BFVs out of Syria."
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