America's changing calculations in the Middle East

Increased attacks on US forces from Iran-backed militias have ramped up pressure for an American exit

The US will not withdraw from all its bases around the Middle East, but the future of its military forces in Iraq and Syria is less certain.
Nash Weerasekera
The US will not withdraw from all its bases around the Middle East, but the future of its military forces in Iraq and Syria is less certain.

America's changing calculations in the Middle East

The Biden administration in 2024 will not withdraw from all its bases around the Middle East, but the future of its military forces in Iraq and Syria is less certain.

Most of the 30,000 American forces in the Middle East are at bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. The American Navy has had a headquarters for its Arabian Gulf fleet since the British military left these waters in 1971.

The Bahrain headquarters originally aimed to deter Soviet penetration of the Gulf. In the last two decades, the mission has focused on deterring Iran and combating piracy in the Arabian Sea. Those missions will continue even after the naval forces’ fight against the Houthis ends.

The Americans also operate ground and air units out of two Kuwaiti bases; these deployed started after the liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in 1991.

The al-Udeid airbase in Qatar is the biggest American base in the region and is a major command centre.

After 9/11, the Americans began using al-Dhafra airbase in the United Arab Emirates, and they also have training and advisory missions in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. These Arab states welcome the American presence.

Washington’s concerns about Iran, as well as the emerging Chinese role in the region, make it very unlikely Washington will leave these bases unless the Arab governments tell the Americans to depart.

However, the situation of American forces in Iraq and Syria is more difficult as increased attacks from militias backed by Iran have killed and injured tens of soldiers and reduced the forces’ effectiveness.

Nash Weerasekera

A February 5 report from the inspectors of the State and Defence Departments said that the militia attacks had diverted resources away from pursuing the American mission chasing Islamic State (IS) remnants and strengthening partner forces in Iraq and Syria.

The report added that meetings between American officers, local military, and political figures have been delayed or cancelled.

On a more positive note, the February report also relayed the conclusion of American intelligence that IS in Iraq and Syria is “militarily defeated” and only trying to survive.

IS “is unable to undertake large, complex attacks either in Syria or Iraq or in foreign states.” Small IS groups still can conduct small ambushes in Iraq and Syria, but they do not threaten government control of cities.

Notably, in Iraq, IS was unable to disrupt recent local elections or religious observances in Karbala and Baghdad.

Iraq presence

Iraqi Premier Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani has emphasised that Iraqi forces can control the remaining IS elements in Iraq and, therefore, the two governments should negotiate an end to the international coalition’s presence in Iraq.

Al Sudani hopes for good bilateral relations with Washington, including military relations. The Iraqis need American technical help to maintain their American weapons, such as the F-16 fighters.

In January 2023, Al Sudani told an American newspaper that he had no timetable for withdrawing US forces. His government’s tone is changing, however.

During the past month, Al Sudani’s spokesman called the American air strikes in Iraq and the assassinations of militia leaders who are attacking the Americans “destabilising” and serious “violations of Iraqi sovereignty.”

Washington's concerns about Iran, as well as the emerging Chinese role in the region, make it very unlikely Washington will leave its Middle East bases.

Most importantly, aides to Al Sudani stress that the government rejected risking Iraq becoming the stage where Iran and the US settle their scores.

Also remarkable is the sharp criticism from Major General Yehia Rasool, the spokesman of the Commander of the Iraqi Armed Forces, who furiously criticised American air strikes in Iraq and publicly called for negotiations to set a departure date for the Americans.

The position of the Iraqi military in the bilateral negotiations about the future of American forces is important because the Pentagon thinks the negotiations are really a technical assessment of whether the Iraqi military's capabilities are good enough for the Americans to leave the fight against IS to them.

Rasool moderated his tone in a February 11 statement, noting the technical assessment underway that should lead to a "gradual, planned reduction" in coalition forces and a move to bilateral military relations.

Meanwhile, Kurdish and Sunni Arab political figures say little publicly.

However, as they did after the uproar among Iraqi Shiite Islamists after the January 2020 American assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and militia leader Mehdi Abu Muhandis, Kurdish and Sunni Arab deputies avoided the special parliament session that was demanding the prompt departure of US forces.

Only 77 of 329 deputies attended that February 10 session, an indication that so far, Iran and its allies influence, but do not control, Baghdad's final word about the fate of American forces in Iraq.

Despite the more difficult operating environment, since the surge in militia attacks after Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel, it is remarkable how little public discussion there has been inside the Biden administration or Congress about withdrawing American forces from Iraq.

Remembering the rise of IS after the Americans departed Iraq in 2011, American officials want more time to strengthen the Iraqi forces if possible. The Americans also do not want to rush a departure, fearing that they will appear weak in the face of attacks from the militias.

For example, the US postponed follow-up negotiations about the future of its forces in Iraq after the January 28 killing of three soldiers in Jordan. Finally, the two governments held another round of talks on February 11 at Iraqi insistence.

US President Joe Biden pays his respects as the army moves a flagged dragged transfer case containing the remains of Army Sgt. Breonna Moffett during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base on February 02, 2024.

Erbil presence

But could US troops leave Baghdad and al-Assad airbase in western Iraq and stay at Erbil airport in Iraqi Kurdistan, where they conduct training operations with the Peshmerga and operate a logistics centre?

Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani on February 8 told American television network NBC that a continued US presence in Iraq is "necessary" and emphasised Erbil's hopes for greater support from their ally.

However, Iraqi Kurdistan Article 110 of the Iraqi constitution gives the federal government in Baghdad exclusive authority over foreign and national security policy.

Thus, ignoring an instruction from Baghdad to close the American military operations in Erbil puts the Kurdish Region Government in a difficult legal position.

Interestingly, on February 9, the Deputy Parliament Speaker, Shakhwan Abdallah from the Barzanis' Kurdish Democratic Party, denounced the American air strikes in Iraq, as well as the Iranian attack on Erbil airport.

He added that the government in Baghdad had full authority to take the diplomatic and security steps to reassert Iraqi national sovereignty.

It is important to note that the Erbil government now relies on the federal government in Baghdad for funding to pay its civil servants.

Militia leaders reject the Americans staying in Erbil, however, and the Kurdish Region Government will have to weigh the risk of retaliation from Baghdad and an escalation between the Peshmerga and the Iranian-backed militias who have already clashed around Kirkuk in the past.

The Iraqi government doesn't want Iraq to become a stage where Iran and the US settle their scores.

Syria presence

The American logistics centre in Erbil is the key to the future of the US presence in Syria. If the Iraqis eject the US military from Erbil, its forces must also depart from Syria.

On January 28 in Ankara, Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland stressed the US would not leave Syria despite reports that the Pentagon had started planning a withdrawal.

Devising a military plan to evacuate soldiers is very different from making the political decision to withdraw. However, the resignation of the deputy assistant secretary of defence responsible for the Middle East, Dana Stroul, in December removed a strong voice supporting the US military mission in eastern Syria.

One eastern Syria figure told me on February 10 that American officials told him the troops would not stay forever, marking a change in tone.

When the Americans finally do withdraw from Syria, their partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by a Syrian Kurdish militia called the People's Protection Units (YPG), will face difficult choices.

Turkish hostility against the YPG — which in the past compelled them to accept tactical agreements with Russia and the Syrian Government — will not cease.

The YPG reached two agreements with the Russians and the Syrian Government in 2019 that expanded the Russian and Syrian government forces' presence in northern Syria to deter potential Turkish invasions.

For this reason, in multiple locations in Aleppo and Hasaka governorates, forces loyal to Damascus, including even pro-Iranian militias, are co-located with the YPG militia fighters.

Members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) attend the funeral of an Arab fighter in SDF who was killed the previous week in the eastern Deir ez-Zor province, in northeastern Syrian Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli.

After an eventual American withdrawal, a comprehensive agreement between the YPG and SDF on one side and Russia and the Syrian government on the other will have to confront three difficult issues.

The future of security in the eastern Syrian governorates of Hasaka and Deir Zour is now controlled by the SDF in cooperation with about a thousand American soldiers.

The Syrian Arab Army lacks the manpower to control eastern Syria, including detention camps holding tens of thousands of IS prisoners and their families that the terrorist group wants to liberate to rebuild its strength.

The Syrian Arab Army, therefore, needs the existing YPG and SDF fighters to help contain IS. However, Damascus and the YPG and SDF must agree on how they would work with the Syrian Arab Army.

The future of the small but important oil revenues from Hasaka and Deir ez-Zor that both the autonomous administration and Damascus covet.

Finally, the question of local administration compared to the authority of Damascus over all Hasaka and Deir ez-Zor governorates must be agreed upon.

The US logistics centre in Erbil is the key to the future of the US presence in Syria. If ejected from Erbil, US forces must also depart from Syria.

Dynamics of a withdrawal

The US is under growing political and military pressure from Iran to leave.

American retaliation against the militias is gradually reducing the manoeuvre space for Al Sudani in negotiations about the future of the US forces. There will, therefore, be more militia attacks, especially if the bilateral negotiations do not lead to a prompt American departure.

Moreover, these militia attacks are undermining the main justification in Washington for keeping the soldiers in Iraq and Syria since their ability to fight IS and build strong partner forces is diminishing.

It seems unlikely in an election year that Biden would want to start a larger war with Iran to maintain an increasingly risky military mission in Iraq and Syria for marginal benefit against an already very weak IS.

At the same time, Biden would receive sharp criticism from many in Congress for retreating from Syria and Iraq if he does not have to do so. Next year, after the election, Biden, or Donald Trump, would have much more political space to withdraw.

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