General Kenneth F McKenzie, America’s top military commander in the Middle East, said last Wednesday, as reported by The New York Times, that the level of US troops in Syria and Iraq will drop off in the next couple of months.
Likewise, President Trump is indicating the same as he believes that the Middle East is the seat of many “endless wars”. The United States has been trying to minimise its troops in the region for the last couple of years. Former president Barack Obama withdrew all US troops from Iraq on 18 December 2011. That move proved to be a mistake as just a couple of months later a new insurgency by the name of the Islamic State group (IS) began to rise, taking advantage of instability in Syria and Iraq.
However, with worldwide efforts, IS has been mainly defeated and with the threat of terrorism diminishing, leaders in the US are more eager than ever to minimise US military presence in the region.
There are 5,000 US troops today in Iraq. Even though the Islamic State group has been mainly defeated in the country, US troops remain as tensions are still high. Earlier this year, the US launched an airstrike in Iraq that killed General Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, a unit in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the head of Kataeb Hizbullah. The airstrike came in response to an attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The drone strike was not just a blow for Iran and its proxies but also a setback for Iraq as the country’s sovereignty is in shambles as Iran and the US launch airstrikes on its land. In response to the US drone strike, Iraq’s parliament voted to expel US troops from the country. However, President Trump refused the parliament’s demand. He stated: “US troops will eventually leave Iraq, but now is not the right point for an American withdrawal.”
The US has strategic reasons to stay for now in Iraq. First, the US is heavily invested in training Iraqi security forces, so that they can counter any resurgence of terrorist groups like the Islamic State group. Second, the US wants to counter Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. Iran does not only pose a threat to Iraq, but also to Gulf states that are major oil producers, like the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In September 2019, a drone and missile attack targeted an Aramco oil facility in Saudi Arabia. Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, and the group is known to be supported by Iran.
“Attacks by Iranian-backed militias on the United States and its partners are likely to keep the United States in Iraq longer because they highlight that Iraq doesn’t fully control its own territory. When Iranian militias run wild, Iraqis privately ask the US to stay. The Pentagon is also likely going to resist leaving completely because they already tried that in 2011 and, three years later, had to return,” Michael Rubin, scholar at the Middle East Institute and author of Dancing with the Devil, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
One of the reasons that there are troops in Syria is to protect oil fields in northern Syria. A week ago, the Trump administration approved a deal between Delta Crescent Energy and Kurdish authorities. The American company is set to modernise and develop oil fields in northern Syria with the protection of the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and the estimated 500 US troops in that area. It was reported that the State Department and Pentagon have been working secretly to make this deal happen.
“It’s true that Middle East oil is less important to the United States today than it was, and is likely to become less so. But it is still vital to the global economy and therefore it remains a US vital strategic interest, to ensure it is accessible to global markets. This requires an ongoing role in Gulf security,” Charles Dunne, scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former US diplomat, told the Weekly.
However, that deal is going to frustrate several parties in the region, such as Bashar Al-Assad’s government and its Russian ally, and Turkey. The Syrian government is eager to retain every “inch of Syria” as Al-Assad once promised. Therefore, the deal is a setback for his government as the United States aims to weaken Al-Assad’s flow of revenue with this deal. On the other hand, Turkey is frustrated with the deal as it claims that the YPG is associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group by the United States, European Union and Turkey. Last October, Turkey launched an offensive on the group. Therefore, the deal comes with great significance to the Kurds, as it gives the YPG recognition and gives the Kurds hope of developing an independent state in northern Syria.
Afghanistan is another country that the US is finally withdrawing from. The US signed a peace agreement with the Taliban on 29 February 2020. The United States is committed to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan. For its part, the Taliban pledged not to allow terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda to obtain territory from which they could train jihadists and launch attacks on the West. However, there seems to be limited progress on this front. The group still carries out attacks and in response the US carries airstrikes on the group. There is estimated to be 8,600 troops in Afghanistan today.
A hurried withdrawal could lead to a hurried re-engagement. That was proven when the US left Iraq in 2011 and terrorist groups took advantage and launched terrorist attacks on European and US soil. Thus, the US must be patient and strategic in its withdrawal. Especially, as the Taliban could overthrow the Afghani government in the near future if US and coalition forces totally withdraw.
“Personally, I doubt the Afghan government will long survive a US pull-out; nor would any peace or power sharing agreement,” Dunne told the Weekly.
Likewise, Michael Rubin is not optimistic about Afghanistan’s future. “Afghanistan will be a mess and will likely slide back into civil war. The Taliban remains deeply unpopular and is not strong enough to win control over the whole country. The government in Kabul will not be able to control too much either. That means a backsliding into warlordism,” he told the Weekly.
The United States wants to focus more on the rising influence of China. “My ambition is and remains to look at how we pull resources — resources being troops and equipment and you name it,” from places like Africa and the Gulf and move them to the Asia-Pacific, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in December 2019. “That remains my ambition, but I have to deal with the world I have.”
In light of a possible US withdrawal from the Middle East, international and regional powers are seeking to gain more influence. Iraq and China are strengthening their military ties where official statements by both sides indicate the Chinese government’s willingness to provide military assistance to Iraq. The Iraqi Ambassador to Iran Saad Jawad Qandil, said that Iraq is in the process of purchasing Russian missile systems to update its defence infrastructure amid fears of further US-Iranian confrontation on Iraqi soil, according to the Washington Institute.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.