Gaza war stalls Biden's Mideast disengagement plan

Despite recent setbacks to his plan, Biden remains determined to end America's "forever wars" in the region.

Gaza war stalls Biden's Mideast disengagement plan

The Gaza crisis may have forced US President Joe Biden to review his plan to withdraw US forces from Syria and Iraq, but there still remains a strong possibility he will revive his plans if he succeeds in winning re-election in November’s presidential poll.

At the start of this year, the Biden administration gave every indication that it was determined to make further cuts to Washington’s military presence in the region by withdrawing its military presence in both Iraq and Syria.

After becoming president, one of Biden’s first acts was to end the US combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021, with remaining US troops serving in an advisory and assistance role.

The US combat mission formally concluded on 9 December 2021, with 2,500 US troops remaining in the country.

Biden’s determination to end Washington’s military involvement in Iraq surfaced again in January when US officials held the first round of talks with the Iraqi government to discuss the future of US and other allied troops based in the country.

There were even suggestions that the Biden administration was thinking of withdrawing the 900-strong US force based in Syria, where they are involved in monitoring Iran’s terrorist activities in the country, as well as guarding thousands of battle-hardened IS fighters captured after the fall of Raqqa.

Read more: The dangers of a US withdrawal from Syria

Plan interrupted

Biden’s withdrawal plans, though, were thrown into disarray after an Iranian-backed militia attacked a US military base in northern Jordan in late January, killing three military personnel and wounding many others.

The US was slated to make further cuts to its military presence in Iraq and Syria until militants attacked a US base in Jordan, killing three military personnel.

This prompted the US to launch a series of retaliatory raids against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, with the resulting tensions in the region obliging the White House to put on hold its withdrawal plans — for the time being, at least.

The prospect of Washington undertaking further significant cuts to its military presence in Iraq and Syria should not, though, be completely discounted if Biden succeeds in his campaign to win re-election to serve a second term as president.

In the past, Biden has spoken frequently about his desire to end America's "forever wars" in the Middle East and will be sorely tempted to press ahead with achieving his goal if he does win re-election.

Read more: Biden's security strategy reflects waning US interest in the Middle East

Determining factors

This will depend, to a large extent, on several key factors that could have an important bearing on whether a second Biden term at the White House results in more US military withdrawals.

The most important consideration will be the outcome of the Gaza crisis and whether it helps to reduce tensions in the region — especially the attempts by Iranian-backed groups such as Yemen's Houthi rebels to disrupt global trade routes.

So long as these Iranian-backed militias remain active, Washington will need to maintain a military presence throughout the region — including in Iraq and Syria — to contain the threat to the US and its allies. 

So long as Iran-backed militias remain active, Washington will need to maintain a military presence throughout the region to contain the threat to the US and its allies.

How long US forces will need to remain in countries like Iraq and Syria will also depend on whether the Biden administration's ambitious plan to redefine its relationship with the region achieves key objectives.

This includes implementing a lasting ceasefire in Gaza and encouraging Saudi Arabia to normalise diplomatic relations with Israel.

Read more: Arab normalisation with Israel loses appeal amid Gaza horrors

If Washington succeeds in reviving its long-standing alliance with Saudi Arabia — one of the region's military superpowers — it could enable the US to scale down its military commitments in other parts of the Middle East.

Such a move could prove risky — especially given Iran's long-running campaign to end American influence in the region. But it might be one Biden is prepared to take in his quest to end America's "forever wars" in the Middle East.

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