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Iraq Withdrawal Talks Present Watershed Moment

Author: Tom Freebairn

February 05 2024

Soldiers march past the 2-mile point during the Irbil Iron 12 road march in Irbil, Iraq, Jan. 6, 2018 – U.S. Dept. of Defense

The U.S. and Iraqi governments have begun the process of discussing a timeline of withdrawal for the U.S. and allied military personnel stationed in the Middle Eastern nation, according to a Jan. 24 Reuters article. While a formal withdrawal of Washington’s approximately 2,500 personnel in the country is unlikely to come any time soon, the talks reflect a watershed moment for the longstanding U.S. presence in the region at large.

Though Washington’s modern footprint in Iraq began with the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation, the withdrawal of those combat forces was mostly completed by December 2011. This cohort of U.S. troops have been stationed in-country since 2014 following the rampage of the Islamic State (ISIS) which, at its peak, controlled 40 percent of the country, and a third of neighboring Syria. To combat ISIS, the U.S. allied with Kurdish groups in Syria, despite severe opposition from NATO ally Turkey, which views the groups as terrorists, further complicating the regional dynamics. With the fifth anniversary of the ISIS’ territorial defeat coming in March, the purpose of the continued U.S. redeployment in Iraq, and the presence of the roughly 900 soldiers in Syria has come under increasing scrutiny.

Although ISIS cells continue to operate in Iraq and Syria, the role of U.S. forces in combating them has become increasingly limited. Their presence has evolved into a support mission for allied Kurdish groups, which the U.S. relies on to keep ISIS in check. Perhaps more importantly, U.S. forces serve as an obstruction to the expansion of Iran’s sphere of influence.

Tehran and its network of proxies have shown a determined zeal in opposing the U.S. presence in Iraq and Syria, a trend which has only escalated in the past few months following the events of Oct. 7 and the Israeli military operation in Gaza. Although attacks on U.S. bases in the region are not uncommon, the rate has escalated significantly in past months. Since October 2023, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a network of militias backed by Iran, has launched over 150 rocket and drone attacks on U.S. bases, culminating in the attack on the Tower 22 base in Jordan on Jan. 28, which killed three servicemembers and injured almost 50 more.

Since the territorial defeat of ISIS in 2019, the U.S. has lacked a clear objective in Syria and Iraq, having been soured on state-building following failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unwilling to become involved in the intricate ongoing Syrian Civil War. As Assad consolidates power in Syria, Iranian-aligned groups and militias gain ever more influence in Iraq, and infighting plagues historically pro-U.S. Kurdish groups in Northern Iraq, Washington must devise a new strategy to justify its presence in the region or begin cutting its losses and winding down its deployments in contested areas, focusing on a smaller breadth of more vital territory in the Middle East.

A full withdrawal, even years down the line, would be an undeniable propaganda victory for Iran, allowing Tehran to strengthen its position in the region and affirm its narrative of U.S. weakness. Moreover, it would involve the effective abandonment of allied groups in Syria and Iraq, a fate that could tarnish Washington’s credibility in the region and beyond. Sunni Arab and Kurdish groups in Iraq would almost certainly oppose the withdrawal, fearing the dominance of unchecked, pro-Iranian Shia factions in the country. Likewise in Syria, the pro-U.S., Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) would face impossible odds without the guarantee of U.S. protection, as both the Assad regime and the Turkish government seek to end their experiment in self-governance. However, with escalating tensions in Israel and persistent attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes by Iranian-backed Houthi militants, U.S. resources and attention may be better dedicated to other areas of the Middle East.

Observers should also be skeptical in assuming a withdrawal could be accomplished easily. The Obama-era push to decouple from the quagmire in Iraq in 2011 saw the rise of ISIS two years later, forcing an arduous return.

A renewed commitment, however, risks expanding Washington’s rivalry with Iran into previously uncharted territory, potentially bogging the U.S. down in one or more local conflicts despite a stated desire to pivot away from the Middle East. With the Ukraine War taking up significant foreign policy bandwidth, and the perpetual specter of Chinese expansionism in the periphery, Washington is understandably reluctant to re-engage with a region it has seen minimal returns from.

Domestically, the concept of foreign deployments has also become less popular, with six in ten Americans believing the United States should take an active role in world affairs, the lowest level recorded since 1974. With an election coming in November, domestic electoral concerns will be at the forefront of the administration’s priorities.

While the incoming talks on withdrawal from Iraq are unlikely to yield an overnight change in U.S. force structure in the region, they reflect a growing understanding that the current status quo is untenable. Over two decades after the declaration of the War on Terror, the U.S. will to persist in an unfriendly region mired in crisis is perhaps ready to wane. It remains to be seen how the Biden administration and future governments will handle the difficult reality of the situation, but decisions made in the next year have the potential to radically impact the character and shape of U.S. military and political engagement in the Middle East.

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