Withdrawal symptoms: the US and a pullout from Iraq and Syria

Summary: despite growing escalatory tensions in the Middle East that are currently being fed by the Gaza war, serious consideration continues in Washington over pulling US troops out of Syria and Iraq.

Today’s newsletter is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of our 17 April podcast with the New Lines Institute’s Caroline Rose. Caroline is the director of the Strategic Blindspots Portfolio at the Washington-based think tank where she leads on the intersection of defence, security, illicit trades and geopolitical landscapes from Europe to the Middle East and North Africa. Her portfolio includes research and analysis on post withdrawal security landscapes. You can find the podcast here.

President Donald Trump with US military personnel during an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018
President Donald Trump with US military personnel during an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018

What do you think the likelihood of a US withdrawal from Iraq and Syria is given that we’re in an election year? 

I think it’s a crucial time to be having discussions like these, especially in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan where we witnessed an evacuation rather than a full scale withdrawal strategy. Now is the time to have a frank and open discussion, and even a debate, about what a withdrawal from Iraq and Syria would look like, looking at the security realities, the operational environment and discussing the security implications that would be left in the wake of a partial or full scale withdrawal.

Now, when we look at the likelihood for withdrawal in Iraq and Syria under Operation Inherent Resolve, interestingly, there are right now discussions with higher military commissions between the United States and Iraq reviewing the mandate and the mission and really the purpose, as well as of course, the timeline of the coalition and its presence in Iraq. However I think that ultimately there’s a higher likelihood of the United States departing from Syria than Iraq.

You mentioned that chaotic withdrawal in Afghanistan which has really blotted President Biden’s copybook. How much has that damaged US credibility in the Middle East? 

I think immensely. There was a reality that the United States was always going to disengage as it was seeking to bolster its great power competition capabilities. The United States is increasingly looking to focus on the Pacific and on countering China; also, of course, countering Russia as it wages its war in Ukraine. So there was always this assumed reality. But then once we saw the withdrawal from Afghanistan, I think it was a lesson that the United States could have contingency and evacuation plans but when it came down to it, there was really no plan for mitigating the fallout and the security implications of this new power vacuum. And I think now many are looking at the Middle East, looking at Syria and Iraq and the results are almost just as obvious. In Syria of course, we would have a convergence of powers, both external actors as well as key players, for example, the Syrian regime. You would also, of course, have Türkiye, Russia, Iran and Iran-aligned militias that would all seek to try to salvage and scramble and establish different areas of influence as well as counter the (predominately Kurdish) SDF which has been a key partner of the United States in northeast Syria.

In Iraq, there is a very similar dynamic in that Iran-aligned militias would deepen their foothold as well as their political influence. And you would have Türkiye doubling down on its existing air campaign against PKK insurgents in northern Iraq, particularly in the Qandil Mountains. You would also likely have other powers like Russia and China try and see where they could salvage and create an area of influence and try to fill the vacuum that the United States left behind. So it’s very key to game out these post-withdrawal security dynamics especially as we’re now approaching a dynamic in the Middle East where escalation is incredibly high. We haven’t seen this level of escalation between Israel and Iran ever. And so because of this, one strike against a US installation or one error could cost the lives of American personnel. And with that, there would be immense political pressure that could induce a very speedy withdrawal or a withdrawal that the Department of Defense has not planned. And instead, it would look more like an evacuation rather than a phased, slow and incremental withdrawal process.

Afghanistan 2.0. A worrying prospect. But can you remind us of the actual numbers, the military commitment in Syria and Iraq of American boots on the ground. It isn’t that big, is it? 

No, it’s a very small sliver of US forward posture. In Syria, we have 900 personnel stationed there. That doesn’t include contractors, but that’s extremely small. And then when we look to Iraq, it’s 2500. Also not including contractors, but again very small. And even in 2020, the United States nearly halved its personnel count in Iraq. And then of course, after the Trump administration’s temporary withdrawal and once they bolstered the United States presence there, we also saw the US forward posture in northeast Syria dwindle. So it’s very small. It’s also a cheap mission in the sense that the United States has a lot of joint installations. It’s an advise and assist mission while, of course, they have to act in a defensive capacity when they’re struck by Iran-aligned militias. US troops are primarily there to help partners on the ground conduct anti-ISIS raids and help build capacity amongst these partners across Syria and Iraq, and really because of this, it’s a very small footprint and a cheap footprint.

ISIS. First of all in Syria, how do you assess their current strength? And again what are the implications if this small force of American soldiers pulls out? What does that do because ISIS is much stronger, perhaps, than a lot of people are aware.

When you look at reports that the Office of the Inspector General release every quarter to Congress essentially reporting on how our forces are doing, ISIS is a key component. And in these reports, it’s very clear ISIS is by no means in the position that it was in the mid-2010s. However, we’ve seen a series of low level, less sophisticated but consistent attacks that have been made against civilians as well as US partners operating in the region. In northeast Syria there’s a very specific and great concern about potential jailbreaks from ISIS detention centres as well as widespread recruitment in camps like Al-Hawl because the facilities are not properly guarded. There’s also a lot of distraction whenever there’s a Turkish offensive in northeast Syria. This creates the perfect storm for an ISIS resurgence, especially regaining momentum throughout northeast Syria, recruiting en masse, trying to conduct jailbreaks and then more sophisticated attacks against both the SDF and US forces. As well there are attacks on communities and civilians in (ISIS) efforts to regain different swathes of territory. We’ve also seen in northeast Syria that ISIS has made particular gains in the Badiya, the Syrian desert. And there is a prevailing concern if they had that breakout moment – it’s not there yet – that they would try to connect into Idlib province where they could coordinate with Al Qaeda affiliated organisations operating in the northwest of Syria. Then, of course they would also try and make gains into Iraq as well where there are ISIS cells that are actively operating and conducting attacks.

Let’s look then at Iraq. It’s my sense that Baghdad would like to see the Americans leave in a phased withdrawal. So what’s the situation with ISIS there? 

I’ll make two comments on that: with ISIS in Iraq, I think, it really depends on where we’re operating. When you look at northern Iraq and when we’re talking about the Kurdish security forces, they are reporting back more effective counter-ISIS missions, sometimes ISIS not making much progress at all. Whereas when it comes to parts of southern Iraq, or even along the Syrian-Iraqi border, that’s where you have much more of a need for consistent counter-ISIS missions. And that is primarily with the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) and the CTS (Iraqi Counterterrorism Services.) That being said when we talk about whether Iraq wants the United States to conduct a full withdrawal, I think it’s important to remember that Prime Minister Sudani is in very much of a bind. He was elected with the help of a framework and a coalition that is primarily affiliated to and aligned with Iran. And because of that, Iran also has a major security influence through the Popular Mobilization Forces which have received an increased budget as well as the ability to recruit more members. They’ve also received a swathe of different (government) contracts which is very important for them to expand their footprint. Of course Sudani also enjoys the support of a number of other actors operating in this political space. But he knows that the pressure that has been mounted by the Iran-aligned actors is only going to increase unless he tries to induce a military withdrawal from the United States. That being said, Washington provides millions in security assistance as well as humanitarian assistance. They are a major influence in Iraq’s security infrastructure as well as their governmental structure. And Sudani doesn’t necessarily want to lose that. So if the United States were to conduct a withdrawal, he would have a much harder time, scrambling to gain political approval and backing from a number of different coalitions both within the Sunni community as well as the Kurdish community who are key to averting the political crises and paralysis within the Iraqi political landscape that we’ve seen in years past. And so Sudani is in a very difficult spot. He doesn’t quite want the United States to leave but he does want to achieve some sort of quick political win that keeps key blocs at bay. And because of this, we might see a shift in the nature of the mission that might satisfy a number of these different political coalitions but that might also result in a partial withdrawal. But I don’t necessarily see Iraq pushing for a full-scale quick withdrawal unless these Shia militias are able to wield even more influence.

And of course, if there was a withdrawal from either Syria, or Iraq, Tehran would declare that as a big win, as I suppose ISIS would too. So there’s that at play. But let us assume that Biden does not pull US forces out before November. And let us also assume that he wins the election. Beyond backing Israel, do you see a coherent Middle East and North Africa strategy emerging? Because honestly, Caroline, I’m finding it hard to find one in his current term. 

No, I don’t think that the United States has a coherent Middle East strategy. I think that from the Trump administration onward, it’s been put on autopilot in the sense that we scrambled together these normalisation deals, we were trying to diversify our relationships beyond the security sphere and ultimately work on disengaging from the region. And I think that the past year has been a very important reality check to the United States, as well as its partners looking to disengage. And it demonstrates that you really cannot have your cake and eat it too. You cannot wish to be an influential actor in the diplomatic space and convene a ceasefire deal while also constantly talking about how you wish to disengage from the region. The United States needs to stay engaged in the Middle East; it needs to remain a proactive and active actor in this space, regardless of how its security posture looks. I think that in the United States, we assumed that the Palestinian issue was something of the past and that regional solidarity with Palestinian communities was waning. I think the United States also discarded any sort of crisis happening between Israel and Palestinian actors, as well as (underestimating) regional support for Palestine. And I think that’s why we’ve seen such a prolonged, really catastrophic offensive happen in Gaza. And of course, this resulting humanitarian disaster as well.

Let me put another assumption to you. Donald Trump wins. A quick pull out of US forces in Iraq and Syria, a veering towards a position of grand isolationism? What would a Trump administration mean for the Middle East and North Africa? 

So a great question. And this is something I’ve been trying to grapple with. I think that there are actually two possibilities with the Trump administration. You could see full scale isolationism, which of course resulted in the strategies that we saw in Syria in 2018 and Iraq in 2020, that is really scaling down the United States forward posture. However we also would have an administration that – at least judging by the last Trump administration – is extremely aligned when it comes to Israel and I think we could potentially see the United States really commit itself with this Gaza offensive and double or even triple our arms sales to Israel. And additionally, you could also see a potential strategy that commits US troops and more personnel and not only in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, but potentially on the ground. This is especially, I think, also contingent on how many Iran hawks are positioned in a Trump administration. With the last Trump administration, we saw a lot of Iran hawks. And if that is the case, and if we do see continued Iran-Israeli escalation and shared strikes that could be a possibility worth exploring. So with a Trump administration, we need to consider that we could have two very opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to a policy in the Middle East.

In a recent BBC interview, John Bolton when he was asked the same question said, ‘I don’t know. All I know is that whatever Trump does one day to the next is based on only one thing, which is what is best for Donald Trump. He doesn’t have a foreign policy agenda, he doesn’t have a foreign policy. In his mind, he doesn’t think that way.’ For the Middle East and for the rest of us that is a scary scenario.

Yes it is. And it’s worth remembering, too, that the Trump administration really engaged with Israel and, of course, ushered in the Abraham Accords. That’s something that I think will be a centrepiece of his administration trying to commit itself and commit increased US support behind Israel. I think that is a no-brainer, no matter whether they would militarily disengage or decide to bulk up US personnel in the region.

And as you say, with the Abraham Accords, Trump did something that no other president had done. He moved the needle, he shifted things in a way that hadn’t been shifted in decades. My goodness, we’re living in interesting times, aren’t we, Caroline? 

Very much so and it’s very sad too. I think that there was a lot of progress being made just under a year ago and now with this new reality, we’re seeing unprecedented escalation. And at the end of the day, it’s these communities on the ground that are suffering and experiencing the implications. So it’s a very sad reality. And it’s been a very sad year in the Middle East indeed.

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