SUBSCRIBER+REPORTING – In the wake of Sunday’s strike that killed three Americans and injured dozens more at a small U.S. base in Jordan – the first deadly attack against American troops since the war in Gaza began – the immediate questions involve the nature and scope of the U.S. response. As The Cipher Brief reported on Monday, the Biden Administration is walking a tightrope between a strong retaliation and a desire to avoid a wider war – what one analyst called a “Goldilocks”- style answer (as in, “not too hot” and “not too cold”). On Tuesday, President Biden said that he had reached a decision on how to respond but did not disclose details.
Meanwhile, another decision looms involving the presence of more than 3,000 U.S. service members in Iraq and Syria. This was an issue before Sunday’s deadly attack at the Tower 22 base, given that more than 150 strikes have been aimed at American forces since mid-October, injuring more than 50 Americans, including at least two dozen who suffered traumatic brain injuries.
On January 20, Iran-backed militias fired 17 short-range ballistic missiles and rockets at an airbase in Iraq’s Anbar province, wounding at least four American service members. The toll there could have been worse; U.S. air defenses were able to intercept all but two of the incoming weapons.
Beyond the questions about retaliatory measures, Sunday’s attack and those that preceded it have prompted a different debate over what to do with the roughly 2,500 U.S. troops still stationed in Iraq and another 900 in Syria.
Sunday’s attack “just underscores the vulnerability that U.S. forces have, scattered and dispersed as they are in Syria and in Iraq,” Bernard Hudson, former director of counterterrorism at the CIA told The Cipher Brief. Even before the Tower 22 attack, Hudson argued for removing the American forces in Iraq and Syria, referring to them as “folks in harm’s way who can’t be protected and are surrounded by Iranian elements in both countries.” On Monday, he said “what was a sustainable presence originally is no longer so.”
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Last Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that the U.S. would conduct a review of the posture of its troops in Iraq in conjunction with the Iraqi government, and Politico reported that ”internal discussions” were underway about the fate of U.S. forces in Syria.
In both cases, such reviews would take months; the Pentagon hasn’t said whether the Tower 22 strike will speed up the process. But well before Sunday’s strike, analysts and policymakers were questioning the wisdom of leaving so many American forces in the region–and in striking range of those who wish to do them harm.
Why Are They There?
Although the U.S. war in Iraq ended more than a decade ago, and the campaign against the terror group ISIS was declared a success in Iraq (in 2017) and in Syria (2019), the nearly 3,500 U.S. troops have remained in both countries.
Officially, they serve as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, which began as a U.S.-led coalition in 2014 to dismantle the Islamic State, or ISIS. There was never congressional approval for the mission; the Obama Administration used the post-9/11 measure that authorized military force against the destruction of al-Qaeda–characterizing ISIS as an al-Qaeda successor.
That paved the way for American troops to return to the region.
Iraq announced the terrorist group’s defeat in December 2017; in March 2019, U.S. officials were among those who declared that ISIS had lost control of its base in neighboring Syria, where they said the group had been reduced to a “survival posture.”
But the U.S. troops stayed, on the grounds that leaving might open the door to an ISIS comeback. General Mark Milley, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted last June that the American military presence was vital because “if you completely ignore and turn your back, then you’re setting the conditions for a resurgence.”
The U.S. presence in Iraq has caused friction with that country’s government. Earlier this month, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani called the continued American deployment “destabilizing” and insisted that an anti-ISIS coalition was no longer necessary. It was time, he said, for the U.S. to “agree on a time frame” to exit. The U.S. replied that it had no plans to withdraw troops who continued to monitor and fight terrorist groups and who are there at the “invitation” of the Iraqi government.
The Case for Bringing them Home
The argument for ending the Iraq and Syria deployments is simple: the current geopolitical realities have made those U.S. forces prime targets.
“Our troops are literally, physically sitting in the desert in a known location with targets on their backs,” Daniel Davis, a senior fellow and military expert at Defense Priorities told The Cipher Brief last week. “Other than one contractor killed [in 2019], we’ve lost no troops to these attacks, though much of the reason is because of sheer luck, not skill, that we’ve not lost a uniformed soldier. It is only a matter of time until that happens.”
Davis would soon be proved right. He also argued that in the event of a deadly strike, “the pressure on Biden to retaliate in a strong way directly against targets in Iran will go through the roof. Then the risk of being sucked into a pointless war that does not benefit America will skyrocket.”
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In November, a bipartisan group of senators made a similar point, saying the U.S. was lucky that no Americans had been killed in the strikes, and calling for more robust retaliation–even for strikes by Iran-backed groups that caused only minor injuries or damage to facilities.
And even before Israel’s war against Hamas, and the current spate of attacks against Americans in Iraq and Syria, Robert Ford, the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, suggested that U.S. troops in Syria should come home. The deployment there, he said was part of a “strategy that just makes no sense,” and it had made Syria a “classic forever war” for the U.S.
“There is no counter-ISIS mission – not a legitimate one at any rate and very little (intelligence) which has limited tactical utility,” Davis said last week. “Our national needs are strategic intelligence, and those are procured by other means. Those troops on the ground provide virtually nothing of value for America.”
A Case for the Status Quo
The case to stay in Syria and Iraq imagines a different nightmare: the Americans leave, and in their wake conditions are restored for a resurgent ISIS that could do more damage in the region and beyond.
David Adesnik, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), told The Cipher Brief that the “mission is to keep the Islamic State (ISIS) down and out. Without constant pressure, it could mount a resurgence.”
Adesnik and others suggest the world may have forgotten the extent of the terror ISIS brought before the military campaigns to defeat the group.
“The most important ‘pro’ of the deployment is keeping ISIS neutralized. We can’t forget this was a group that beheaded Americans on YouTube and massacred concertgoers in Paris,” Adesnik said. “Another important ‘pro’ is helping to keep Iran and its proxies at bay. They are already the strongest force or close to it in four Arab capitals: Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and Sanaa.”
Others argue that an exit would ultimately serve as a gift to Iran.
“Tehran would like to see U.S. forces leave Iraq,” said Jonathan Lord, Director for the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “This has been the playbook all along, but Iran and its partner militias in Iraq are executing the play with renewed vigor since the breakout of the Gaza war. It’s opportunistic.”
What Comes Next
In his remarks Thursday, Defense Secretary Austin said that the U.S.-Iraq Higher Military Commission would begin discussions this week, aimed at a review of their role and the mission’s “operational and environmental requirements,” a vague term that may refer to the need to protect the soldiers from attack.
As for Syria, the Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister wrote a piece for Foreign Policy about the planning and told NatSec Daily that private reviews of the U.S. presence had “pointed towards the need to begin considering a path towards withdrawing from Syria and integrating that fully into Syria strategy.”
Again, these are processes that would typically last several months. And it’s not clear yet how Sunday’s deadly strike may change things.
Among the various Cipher Brief experts who commented for this article, few have the experience to match General Frank McKenzie, who led U.S. Central Command, or Centcom, from 2019 to 2022. Centcom oversees American forces in the Middle East, including those in Syria and Iraq, and General McKenzie told The Cipher Brief that he sees merit on both sides of the debate.
Were the U.S. forces to leave Syria, he said, large refugee camps and prisons might be “left unattended,” leading to potentially large-scale humanitarian and security problems. He also said the Kurdish forces who have fought alongside the U.S. in Syria and Iraq would “probably be in serious trouble” were the U.S. to leave.
But McKenzie acknowledged the growing dangers facing the U.S. soldiers on a regular basis–and he, too, was speaking just a few days prior to the attack on Tower 22.
“These attacks are going to continue,” he said, and in Syria in particular, he said that “a reasonable case can be made that our policy objectives, that our military presence in Syria has outrun our policy, and therefore it would benefit from a complete review of why we’re there and what we hope to achieve.
“We’ve managed to avoid significant casualties, and that’s a testament to the effectiveness of Central Command, a testament to the effectiveness of our forces on the ground. They are vulnerable. I will agree. Any reasonable analysis would say that those forces are vulnerable.”
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