Our National Disgrace in Iraq and Syria
American troops are needlessly risking life and limb because of policy paralysis and lack of political courage.
When the Economist’s Gregg Carlstrom interviewed an American diplomat last year, he asked about the Biden Administration’s Syria policy. In response, according to Carlstrom, that official “shrugged and laughed.”
One group certainly not laughing about President Biden’s Syria policy (or lack thereof) is the over 70 U.S. troops injured in attacks by Iranian-aligned militias on American bases in Syria and Iraq since the beginning of the Israel–Hamas war. This number includes over two dozen troops who have suffered life-altering traumatic brain injuries. Additionally, an American contractor supporting these troops died from cardiac arrest during an attack on Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq, where I spent time as an U.S. Marine over 15 years ago.
These troops are in Iraq and Syria as part of a self-defeating combat operation that has largely flown under the radar of the American people for the last several years. The Biden administration prefers this lack of scrutiny. They declared combat operations over in Iraq at the end of 2021—a declaration not reciprocated by Iran’s proxies—and have largely left Syria policy on autopilot since taking office.
Keeping U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria without a clear military mission does not make America safer, but instead risks a catastrophic loss of American life that could escalate into a major war. That many of our policy makers appear intent on sustaining this policy is a national disgrace.
Currently, there are approximately 3,500 U.S. troops spread across mostly small, exposed outposts in Syria and Iraq. Many of these bases have only a handful of U.S. personnel stationed on them and often rely on unreliable local partners for additional protection. This makes these isolated bases soft targets for Iranian militias and other bad actors in the region looking to punish the U.S. or potentially draw U.S. forces into a larger confrontation.
The official mission of the U.S. military in Iraq and Syria is the vaguely defined “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, ISIS’s territorial caliphate was destroyed nearly five years ago. According to a recent Department of Defense Inspector General report, ISIS’s capabilities remain “degraded” and the group is largely operating in “survival mode,” which perhaps explains why U.S. forces at the largest base in Syria (Al-Tanf) had “no kinetic engagements” with the group during the last quarter. Insofar as the scattered remnants of ISIS pose a threat, it is more to Iranian and Syrian interests than American ones.
Additionally, the American military mission in Iraq paradoxically strengthens the Iranian proxies that are attacking and severely injuring U.S. troops.
U.S. troops in Iraq are training and equipping the Iraqi military. Iraq’s security forces, however, are allied with and support the very same Iranian-aligned militias that are regularly attacking U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi Army even handed over advanced American weaponry—including M1 Abrams tanks—to these militias during the latter stages of the fight against ISIS. These groups operate as part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization organized by the Iraqi government, which still receives financial aid from American taxpayers. The fact that U.S. troops are essentially subsidizing the very same people trying to kill them only adds to the absurdity of the American military presence in Iraq and Syria.
The most dangerous aspect of the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria is the heightened risk of the U.S. getting drawn into another major regional conflict. An attack on an U.S. outpost that kills Americans would produce calls for an aggressive response that would likely put the U.S. on an escalatory spiral towards a larger war with Iran. It is unlikely that such a war would be contained to just Iraq and Syria and could spread to the Persian Gulf or Lebanon.
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Iran is not the only actor in the region that the U.S. has to worry about stumbling into a larger conflict with. Russian troops—who are there at the invitation of the Syrian government—routinely run into U.S. troops on patrol in Syria, while U.S. aircraft regularly have tense encounters with Russian aircraft in Syrian airspace. Considering the heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia due to the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, it is not hard to see how an accidental or intentional skirmish on the ground or in the skies of Syria could escalate into a dangerous confrontation between the U.S. and a nuclear-armed Russia.
Policy inertia and political cowardice have condemned American service members in Iraq and Syria to serve as soft targets for those looking to punish the U.S. and as trip wires for a larger regional war. Withdrawal is the only path forward that prioritizes both American lives and interests. It would also provide the U.S. more room to maneuver in response to the Israel–Hamas War and rising tensions with Iran. By withdrawing from Iraq and Syria, the U.S. would no longer have to worry about retaliation against vulnerable U.S. troops due to its support of Israel in its war against Hamas.
There is nothing to salvage from the wreckage of America’s failed policies toward Iraq and Syria by keeping U.S. troops in both countries. Biden should bring our troops home, lest he become yet another president to pointlessly squander American lives in the deserts of the Levant.