Why are there still US troops in Iraq and Syria?
This week the US launched airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria that it said had attacked its troops in Iraq. Notably, the Iraq government, which American troops are in Iraq to support, protested the strikes.
This could make a person wonder: If local militias are attacking US troops in hopes of getting them to leave, and American retaliation draws protest from the Iraqi government, maybe it’s time for the US troops to leave?To try to get a deeper understanding of the situation, I talked to Derek Davison, an expert on the Middle East who publishes the Foreign Exchanges Newsletter. Below is a transcript of part of our exchange. An audio version of the whole conversation is in the Wright Show podcast feed, and a video version is here.
ROBERT WRIGHT: As for the military situation, I gather there are Iran-backed militias that would like the US to leave the country, but also militias that are not so closely aligned with Iran that would also like the US to leave the country?
DEREK DAVISON: Yeah, [but] I think there's still some concern about [the Islamic State if the US leaves]. There's [also] some concern that if the United States leaves, then this kind of balancing game that's been going on is going to shift completely in Iran's direction, and a lot of people I think don't want that.
You mean a lot of Iraqis don't want that.
Right, a lot of Iraqis don't want that. That doesn't mean that they want the US military in Iraq. It just means, you know, there are considerations about what a withdrawal would look like. The Iraqi government—the executive branch, the Prime Minister, and the cabinet—I think doesn't want the United States to leave necessarily. I don't think [Prime Minister] Mustafa al-Kadhimi wants the United States to leave. But he does have to be responsive to the parliament, which is a little more dominated by anti-US interests and, after the Soleimani incident [the US assassination of Iranian military leader Qassam Soleimani while he was visiting Iraq in 2020], voted to order the United States out. It was a non-binding vote, but it still reflected a political reality in Baghdad. So I think there are concerns about what might happen if the United States pulls out, but I would say, for the most part, we're not a popular presence, especially when we do things like attacking militia camps or attacking Iranian diplomatic visitors and things like that. It really doesn't do much for the US standing in that country.
And among people who have the concern about the US pulling out, the concern is to some extent that there would be a resurgence of the Islamic State? Or that's just one of many concerns?
It's an array of things, and not everybody's gonna have the same level of concern, but certainly the Islamic State is not gone. It carries out attacks largely across the middle band [of] the country in Anbar Province and to some extent around Kirkuk and Diyala; it's still active. So I think on some level there is a concern that it could come back a little bit. And of course, if you go across the border, we know it still has a presence in the Syrian desert where it's really difficult to track anybody down and do anything about it. But they're still engaged in fighting with the Syrian military and other forces there.
Of course, Iran would be happy to try to help Iraq take care of the Islamic State.
Yeah, they have done, by some standards, the lion's share [in the fight against ISIS]. Part of the reason the militias exist still—you can date many of them back to the US invasion, but a lot of them either formed or got a second wind when the Islamic State swept through in 2014. And they were the last line of defense. As the Iraqi military was crumbling and falling back, the militias were the forces that kind of stood up and halted that advance.
And for the Shia militias, the Islamic State is almost an existential threat, right? I mean, they would not fare well in an Iraq run by the Islamic State.
No, certainly not.
This thought experiment is too complicated to conduct probably, [but] what would happen if the US withdrew? I'm sure there are different theories. It seems like it would lend power to two opposing forces, the Islamic State and Iran for starters. And they don't like each other, so it's kind of unclear what would happen there, and I have no idea what else would happen. Maybe there's a fear of just more broad-based dissolution or something?
Yeah, it's almost too incomprehensible to think about. The United States is still the main support pillar for the Iraqi government. For us to withdraw, I think the doomsday scenario is either the Islamic State sweeping across the Middle East again or Iran building this new empire, which is what you hear sometimes from Iran hawks in Washington. I don't think either of those things would happen. I suspect it would not be quite that catastrophic.
I think the Iraqi government would certainly face some... It would be destabilizing. It would destabilize the status quo. I would argue that the status quo in Iraq is not very good and maybe should be destabilized, but yeah, it's hard to know exactly what kind of effect that would have on Iraqi politics.
It kind of reminds me of Afghanistan, in the sense that if the presence of a relatively small number of American troops—although very high-tech and well-armed and capable American troops—is essential to the survival of the government on a day-to-day basis, the underlying situation is just not very healthy, right?
There's just something weird about that, and yet the only way to get to something that might be a healthier situation seems to be to do something that in the short term is destabilizing, which is for the US to leave.
I don't think it's quite as precarious as Afghanistan, where the Taliban really may well take over the country once the US leaves and that's, for a lot of people in Afghanistan, not a desirable outcome. I don't think the Iraqi government is going to collapse. I don't think you're going to have some other force taking power in Baghdad if the United States leaves, but it would certainly shake up what has been for quite some time now a very dysfunctional political stasis.
Yeah and it's a little hard for me to imagine how exactly the troops there are vital to the ongoing strength of the government such as it is. I guess that just consists of their ability to basically blow away any armed forces that generate a significant threat to the government? Is that it?
From the Iraqi side, it's just sort of having them there on some level, although, again, I don't think their presence is that popular. On the US side... The Quincy Institute put out a new paper that said it's time to bring all US forces home from the Middle East and [laid] out the case for that, and they did a little symposium around the paper. And I don't know if you're familiar with Paul Pillar; he's an ex CIA analyst who does a lot of foreign policy writing now. He made a very apt comment, which was [that] basically US military forces are in the Middle East to counter attacks on US military forces in the Middle East, to prevent those attacks from happening, to deter those attacks from happening.
That's really what it is at this point. It's this weird circular logic that we're in the Middle East to deter Iran from attacking US interests, but the only place that Iran can attack US interests is in the Middle East. So what is the logic to staying there? Only in Washington does that make sense, I guess. But from the Iraqi perspective, I think it's just basically a counterweight type of a thing.
Paul is so smart and level-headed, and he at one point was, I think, in charge of gathering national intelligence for that whole region.
He was the senior intelligence officer for the whole region, and I encourage people just to Google him and read whatever he says about anything in the area.
As for our presence in the region, do you have a sense for what the Biden administration's rationale for it is? Of course, they inherited the situation. It's not that easy to get out of. On the other hand, the Syrian part of the presence is a little stranger than the Iraq [part]. We all know how we wound up in Iraq, but the Syrian thing actually started on Obama's watch, right? A lot of people think of Trump as having kind of escalated that, but I specifically remember when Obama said, "Okay, we're going to intervene. We're going to help the rebels, but there will be no boots on the ground." I think he used that phrase. And then I remember they established, pretty soon, some boots on the ground. Not many, a few hundred or something, but I remember tweeting, "Oh, [the boots-on-the-ground pledge] didn't last long." And I thought the tweet might get some traction, but it got like zero. And of course, there are all kinds of reasons a tweet can get no traction, but I just thought, "Wait, we're crossing a major threshold here. And no one seems to be paying much attention." And now we have more troops there, and Trump has said, "Well, now they're there, so we can take the oil," with admirable candor, I thought. Give him credit for some things.
Yeah, and Trump actually drew down that force...
After building it up, right?
Part of him wanted to get out entirely, and he kept trying, but he just... I don't know what combination of forces prevented it. I mean, let's face it, he's a guy who chronically cannot get his shit together. It's not surprising that he just wouldn't get a complex task performed, but at the same time there was resistance from various places in the establishment, and he couldn't overcome it.
Yeah, I mean Obama's initial response to the Syrian rebellion, to the civil war, was: "We're going to work with the rebels. We're not going to have direct US intervention, but we could arm these groups and train them and that kind of thing." And that then briefly escalated into potential airstrikes after there were allegations of Assad using chemical weapons, and [Obama] backed down in the face of congressional opposition. It wasn't until 2014—and again, it had to do with the Islamic State and their sudden sweep through a third of Iraq—that all of a sudden the United States was back in this region, moving in the opposite direction. We had sort of been withdrawing. We'd withdrawn to a large extent from Iraq. At that point, it was like, "We gotta go back in," and at some point during that mission, they decided or Obama decided that we couldn't just operate in Iraq. We had to go into Syria to counter the Islamic State because of the fact that the Islamic State ignored that Iraq-Syria border, and they were operating on both sides of it.
Trump escalated that deployment and [worked] with the Kurds, mostly the Syrian Democratic Forces, and they finally captured [the Islamic State's] capital in Syria. They finally did away with IS in at least that part of northeastern Syria where the Kurds predominate, and then it was at that point that you saw Trump trying to get US forces out of Syria and being thwarted to some degree by his own administration. But the presence there now is... Again, the mission is justified as "we have to stay in case of a resurgence by the Islamic State," but they're really there to squat on the oil fields, which as you say Trump was sort of admirably frank about, and as this kind of counterweight to Iran because there's this perception that if the US were to leave, Iran would just kind of control this entire crescent of territory from Yemen all the way around to Lebanon.
Which would be a problem for what reason? Because it could more readily supply arms to Hezbollah, and Israel wouldn't like that, or what?
Yeah, that's part of it. The underlying thing is Iran could make itself more of a problem for Israel, but you don't even get to that level in the discourse about it in Washington. It's just manifestly Iran having influence anywhere is a bad thing ipso facto. You don't usually get people to drill down into why that should matter.
This piece originally appeared in The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll share via email or social media and consider subscribing.
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