DECEMBER 9, 2022
Iraq Opinion Syria Opinion USA Opinion

Opinion: Bring US troops home from Iraq and Syria now

Opinion: Bring US troops home from Iraq and Syria now

By Paul R. Pillar

The drone attack on Sunday that killed three U.S. service members at an outpost in Jordan near the Syria border is more likely to increase rather than decrease U.S. military involvement in the region.

This is unfortunate, and doubly so coming at a time when the Biden administration was showing signs of considering a withdrawal of the 900 U.S. troops in Syria and 2,500 in Iraq. Just last week, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin intimated that a joint U.S.-Iraqi review might lead to a drawdown of at least some of the troops in Iraq. Other reporting points to discussions within the administration about possibly removing the troops now in Syria.

It is unclear why the administration chose this time to consider what was already a long-overdue withdrawal of these troops. The answer probably involves the upsurge in regional violence stemming from Israel’s devastating assault on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and associated anger against the United States for its backing of Israel. Since the Israeli assault began, U.S. military installations in Iraq have been attacked more than 60 times and those in Syria more than 90 times.

The attacks underscore how much these residual U.S. deployments have entailed costs and risks far out of proportion to any positive gains they can achieve. They have been sitting-duck targets within easy reach of militias and other elements wishing to make a violent anti-U.S. statement. Even without deaths, U.S. service members have paid a price, such as in the form of traumatic brain injuries from missile attacks.

The now-familiar tit-for-tat sequence in which American airstrikes against militias in Iraq or Syria alternate with more militia attacks on the U.S. installations illustrates a perverse form of mission creep. Whatever was the original mission of the U.S. troop presence gets sidelined as protection of the troop presence itself becomes the main concern. The tit-for-tats also carry the risk of escalation into a larger conflict.

This weekend’s attack just across the border in Jordan is likely to become part of the same risk-laden sequence. A White House statement promised to “hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner our choosing.”

This will lead the administration to shelve for the time being any ideas it had about bringing home the troops — out of fear of showing weakness amid the inevitable criticism from domestic political opponents. The better course would be to interpret the attack as one more demonstration of how the troop presence in Syria and Iraq represents a needless vulnerability that ought to be ended sooner rather than later.

The official rationale for the presence on both those countries is to prevent a rise of the group known as Islamic State or ISIS. But the motivations have always involved more than that. The presence in Iraq is in some respects a legacy of the U.S. war begun there in 2003, which has imparted the sense of ownership that often follows a large-scale military intervention. The fixation with Iran and a desire to match Iranian presence and influence in these countries have constituted another motivation.

As for ISIS, although it has shown resilience, it is nowhere near what it was in 2014 when it ruled a de facto mini-state across much of western Iraq and northeastern Syria. If the group ever were to begin approaching that status again, much more than the small U.S. contingents in Syria and Iraq would be needed to counter it. To those who might argue that ISIS already is resurgent, one is entitled to ask exactly what good the presence of those contingents is doing in keeping ISIS down.

With regard to any terrorist group, the foremost U.S. concern ought to be not how the group plays in some local conflict but rather the risk of it striking U.S. interests, either at home or abroad. In that regard, the most relevant fact, repeatedly demonstrated with other terrorist groups in other places, is that anger at a foreign military presence is one of the chief motivations for terrorist attacks.

To the extent that ISIS has been kept down, this is partly due to popular opposition in Iraq and Syria to the group’s brutal methods that it displayed when it had its mini-state. It is partly due to the efforts of security forces in those two countries. And it is partly due to the efforts of the foreign state most extensively involved in those countries — Iran.

Iran is very much an enemy of ISIS. It has been a victim of highly lethal ISIS attacks within Iran, including bombings in the heart of Tehran in 2017 and, earlier this month, an attack on a memorial ceremony in the city of Kerman that killed nearly 100 Iranians. Iran was a major player in the earlier efforts to undo the ISIS mini-state.

Combating ISIS is a shared interest of Iran and the United States, as illustrated by the United States reportedly sharing — quite properly, in conformity with the duty to warn — information about the planned ISIS attack in Kerman. It would be in U.S. interests to have Iran continue to do the heavy lifting in holding down ISIS — and to have Iran, not the United States, risk any resulting terrorist reprisals.


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