US Troops to Stay in Syria and Iraq but Perhaps Not for Long

In recent weeks, there have been meetings in Washington and in Baghdad about the presence in Iraq and Syria of US troops, whose official mandate is to aid local forces against remnants of the so-called Islamic State (IS). These meetings come following the post-October 7 surge of attacks on US forces in the region by Iran-backed Shia militias seeking to take advantage of the Israel-Hamas war and Arab public anger over unconditional US support for Israel. The Biden administration does not want to be seen as “cutting and running,” as that would show these militias and their patron in Tehran that they can drive the United States out of the Middle East. The strong US military response earlier in February following a January 28 Iraqi militia drone strike killed three American servicemembers at a US base in Jordan has temporarily stopped such attacks. But the ongoing discussions in the US and Iraqi capitals suggest that Washington may be planning for an eventual withdrawal.

US Support for the SDF in Northeastern Syria

Since 2013 the United States has partnered with the Syrian Kurds to combat IS in the northeastern part of the country. US military commanders found that these Kurds, mostly associated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), were experienced fighters willing to sacrifice to rid their area of the IS presence. The fact that these Kurds incurred more than 10,000 casualties in the counter-IS campaign earned them the respect of the US military. Given that large parts of northeastern Syria are inhabited by Arab Sunni tribes, however, the United States worked with the Syrian Kurds to bring ethnic Arabs into their militia force, thereby creating the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This force is the main protector of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), formerly called Rojava, which means “west” in the Syrian Kurdish dialect and refers to what Syrian Kurds see as the western part of traditional Kurdistan.

During his presidency Donald Trump viewed the US presence in eastern Syria as unnecessary after IS lost its territorial hold and so-called caliphate.

During his presidency Donald Trump viewed the US presence in eastern Syria as unnecessary after IS lost its territorial hold and so-called caliphate. After an October 2019 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (who had long objected to US partnership with the YPG because of its alleged links to Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK), Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops from a Kurdish-inhabited corridor along the Turkish border. The hasty US withdrawal led to the deaths of more than 200 Kurds and to the displacement of at least 100,000 others as Turkey and its Syrian allies took control of the area, prompting widespread condemnation from human rights groups and members of the US Congress. Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden sharply criticized Trump over what he called the “shameful” withdrawal. Although Trump did not withdraw all US servicepeople from eastern Syria as he had intended, during his presidency the United States reduced its troops there from about 2,000 to 900.

Biden’s election in 2020 thus was reassuring to the Syrian Kurds in part because of his long held sympathy for the Kurdish people, his criticism of Trump’s approach, and his pledge to keep the 900 US troops in Syria. Although Biden did not officially recognize the AANES as these Kurds wanted, the US military partnership with the Syrian Kurds continued, especially as the SDF has played an important role in maintaining prison camps of IS fighters and in going after IS cells. The United States also partnered with the SDF in putting down a major prison break by IS fighters in early 2022. In addition, because Turkey has undertaken hundreds of aerial attacks against SDF positions and civilian infrastructure in recent months, Syrian Kurds probably believe that the presence of US troops is the only thing holding back a full Turkish incursion further south into Syria.

But Reassessing Syria Policy

Unbeknownst to Syrian Kurds at the time, on January 18, 2024, the National Security Council held an Interagency Policy Council meeting about the future of the US troop presence in northeastern Syria. At the working-level meeting, which was held at the behest of the Department of Defense, the Pentagon reportedly floated the idea that the Syrian Kurds should partner with the Syrian regime in its fight against IS. Although no decision was made, a follow-on senior level meeting is supposed to take place soon. That the January 18 meeting happened at all indicates that elements in the US government are looking for ways to remove US forces from Syria.

When apprised of the meeting by a reporter, SDF commander Mazlum Abdi said he was “stunned and unable to fathom the reasoning behind this rotten plan.” He emphasized that IS controls swaths of territory to the west of the Euphrates River on the “regime side” and maintains a presence on the road to Damascus. Kobane added that the Syrian regime refuses “any meaningful dialogue” and opposes a “democratic future of Syria.” He also said that Syrian government forces are incapable of defending the territories under its control against IS, “let alone ours.” Indeed, one American think tank expert said he had been approached by several US officials to ring the “alarm bells” about a potential US withdrawal from Syria because it is “not being properly thought through.”

It is unlikely that the Biden administration would support a removal of US troops from northeastern Syria before the November presidential election.

However, it is unlikely that the Biden administration would support a removal of US troops from northeastern Syria before the November presidential election, since the optics of the United States abandoning the Syrian Kurds could have shades of the disastrous 2021 American withdrawal from Afghanistan. But it is possible that Biden could remove troops after the election. If Trump were to return to the presidency, such a withdrawal is almost certain.

Why the Biden administration may want to remove troops from Syria is speculation at this point but may be tied to several factors. One factor may be simply that US troops and bases have become convenient targets for pro-Iran militias, and the specter of a wider war between the United States and Iran makes their presence even more risky. Second, the Biden administration may be inclined to curry favor with Turkey, with a US withdrawal from Syria perhaps serving as a quid pro quo for Ankara’s recent decision to agree to admit Sweden to NATO. Third, the Biden administration believes the Assad regime is likely to remain in power for the foreseeable future and thus, if an indefinite US military presence in Syria is not in the cards, that the Syrian Kurds need to reach some type of accommodation with the regime. In other words, a Syrian Kurdish rapprochement with Damascus may be the least unpalatable option for the Kurds. Turkey, Iran, and Russia, which all have forces in Syria, oppose Syrian Kurdish autonomy. While the Assad regime is not in favor of autonomy either, such thinking goes, it may not be in a strong enough position to take on the SDF militarily and thus may reach an accommodation with it.

Iraq Between Iran and the United States

Despite initial US misgivings about Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamad Shia` al-Sudani because of his ties to pro-Iran Shia political factions, Washington has come to see him as the best of the alternatives to lead Iraq. Sudani reportedly has said the US military training mission in Iraq is needed to help against IS regaining ground. But Sudani has had to tread carefully because most of these Shia militias are part of the PMF (Popular Militia Forces) that operate under the Iraqi military umbrella and have played an active role in fighting IS since 2014. Moreover, Iran continues to play a role in training and arming these militias and in shoring up the Iraqi economy through trade, crucial gas imports for electricity, and religious tourism.

Since August 2023, meetings have been held in Baghdad between Iraqi and US officials under the auspices of the “US-Iraq Higher Military Commission” to look into issues related to the US military presence, the threat posed by IS remnants, and Iraq’s military capabilities. Such meetings were frozen for a time after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, but resumed in late January. The 170 militia strikes against US forces in Iraq and Syria since October 7, and the US retaliation, have given such meetings greater salience of late. According to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, the meetings are supposed to formulate a timeline for “determining the duration of the presence of the international coalition advisors in Iraq.” Although a US defense official told the Washington Post that the meetings’ timing is “not related to the recent [militia] attacks,” it is hard to believe that the two are not connected.

US retaliatory strikes have galvanized segments of the Iraqi population to demand that all US forces leave the country. Iraqi nationalists have long bristled at the presence of foreign troops on their soil, but the issue has once again risen to the forefront, especially among the pro-Iran Shia factions. Thus Sudani and his aides have had to walk a tightrope. They have publicly condemned the US air strikes inside Iraq, especially those against Iraqi Shia militiamen in January and February. After a US strike in Baghdad killed a militia commander in early February, for example, an Iraqi military spokesman said he considered it an aggression and a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. At the same time, Sudani realizes that Iraq’s military capabilities are not up to par and sees IS as an ongoing threat, and therefore wants the US military training mission to continue.

Tehran Finally Getting the Message

Despite claiming that it does not control the Shia militias in Iraq and Shia, Iran appears to have influenced these groups to desist from further strikes against the United States for the time being. After the 85 strikes against these militias that the US conducted on February 3 in retaliation for the January 28 attack on US troops in Jordan, Washington likely sent word to Tehran that Iran itself may be next target. Despite their bravado, Iranian officials are worried that a US strike on their country could destabilize the regime, especially because there is already such widespread antipathy toward it from many segments of Iranian society. Iranian officials do not want to test the hypothesis that a US attack would provoke mass unrest inside the Islamic Republic, and they know that their military capabilities are no match for those of the United States. For all these reasons, there have been no militia attacks on US military personnel or bases in Iraq and Syria since February 4, though the SDF claimed that a pro-Iranian militia force hit one of its bases in Syria on February 5, killing six Kurds.

Iran wants the US-Iraqi discussions on a withdrawal of US troops to proceed in an orderly fashion.

Another reason that Iran has pressured these militias to desist may be that it wants the US-Iraqi discussions on a withdrawal of US troops to proceed in an orderly fashion and may believe that strikes and counterstrikes would have the effect of causing the United States to stay longer. Iran’s ultimate goal is to reduce the US presence in the region and, if it cannot do so with violence, then perhaps it sees allowing diplomacy to succeed as the next best option. It should be noted that logistical support for the US military presence in Syria runs through Iraq. Hence, if the United States were to withdraw its 2,500 troops from Iraq, the 900 troops in Syria would probably follow.

Looking Ahead

The Biden administration has stated that it does not want a wider war in the region while asserting that it will do whatever is necessary to protect American troops in the region, as the early February retaliatory strikes seem to have done (for now). Although the pro-Iran Shia militias in Iraq and Syria clearly have taken advantage of the Israel-Hamas war to advance their agenda, Washington should realize that its unconditional support for the Israeli war on Gaza, which has caused more than 29,000 Palestinian deaths, has contributed to the wider instability in the region. A call by Washington for a permanent ceasefire in the Gaza conflict would, it is hoped, both end this humanitarian nightmare and deny the militias an opportunity to exploit.

As for the US troop presence in Syria and Iraq, the United States cannot remain in these countries indefinitely, but it must conduct any withdrawal judiciously. Whether it likes it or not, the United States has a moral obligation to the Syrian Kurds, to whom it owes much in the fight against IS. Saying that they should simply make an accommodation with the Assad regime is inadequate and irresponsible. Washington should also make clear to the Turkish government that a US withdrawal should not be a signal for Ankara to move further south and destroy the AANES entity. In Iraq, US and Iraqi officials should come to a realistic understanding of when the Iraqi military will no longer need US training to take on IS cells without US support. In other words, military capabilities should be the driving force behind any withdrawal decision, though politics will almost assuredly intervene.

Featured image credit: US DoD