American troops deployed to Iraq and Syria are “going nowhere,” US officials and diplomats said, despite arguments that the US was disengaging from the Middle East following its quick Afghanistan withdrawal.
Last year, the Trump administration reduced the troop presence in Iraq by almost half. That left around 3,000 American forces in the country, which are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government to help in their fight against ISIS.
The removal of a sizeable chunk of American forces came after Iraq’s parliament passed a law calling on all foreign troops to leave the country. And with the elections last weekend in Iraq, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an anti-US figure, cemented his party’s representation in parliament.
It remains unclear how quickly a new government in Iraq will be formed, but the influence of Sadr and other anti-US figures could see more legislation passed to push for a complete withdrawal of US troops.
But US officials say their troops are staying put.
“We remain committed to maintaining the US military presence in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government to support the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga as they lead in the fight against ISIS,” Pentagon Spokesperson Commander Jessica McNulty said in an email.
An adjustment of troop status was announced during the summer after Iraqi PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with US President Joe Biden. The former had come under increasing pressure from pro-Iran groups over foreign troops inside Iraq. This was exacerbated by the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and the deputy chief of an Iran-backed militia in Iraq.
On the back of this, the announcement that US troops would end their “combat mission” and shift to an advising role was made.
“We will fulfill the commitments we made in the joint statement following the July US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue and continue to work toward that objective with our Iraqi partners. We continue to coordinate with our Iraqi partners on the transition to a training, advising, assisting, and intelligence-sharing role,” McNulty said.
Analysts said at the time it was a move to help ease pressure on Kadhimi.
It also came when the US began its complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, raising eyebrows because the view was that Washington was ending its interest and presence in the Middle East.
“We’re not going anywhere for the time being. Afghanistan is completely separate, and it has nothing to do with our troops in Syria and Iraq,” a US official told Al Arabiya English.
A US diplomat source reaffirmed the conviction that the Biden administration had no intention of scaling back any of its military posture in the region.
Executive Editor at Washington-based Defense One Kevin Baron said there was “far less” political pressure or need to pull US troops from Iraq or Syria. “In fact, there’s an even greater US security argument for keeping them there,” he told Al Arabiya English.
Baron pointed to US strategic and geopolitical interests, including deterring Iran, Russia, Turkey and Assad from “turning that human tragedy of their own making into something worse.”
Baron added that any decision to withdraw or reduce the number of US troops would likely depend more on Baghdad than Biden. “We’ve seen this story in Iraqi elections before. I don’t expect it to end any differently this time.”
US military focus on terrorist groups
Asked about Syria, a White House official told Al Arabiya English that “focusing our military efforts on terrorist groups that pose the capability and intent to attack the United States and its allies” remained a key priority.
“ISIS and al-Qaida in Syria pose an enduring threat to US national security interests, in particular through the over 10,000 ISIS detainees held in makeshift facilities in northeast Syria along with tens of thousands of IDPs living in destitute conditions in over-crowded displacement camps,” the official added.
With a growing presence of anti-US lawmakers and groups in Iraq, and an apparent easing of pressure on Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, the Biden administration will come under increased scrutiny for the scale of American military presence in the region.
Any consideration to withdraw the “meager number of US troops present in Syria and Iraq” would be a serious mistake and reckless, according to former US Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn
“Their presence is absolutely vital for US interests and for the security of our allies,” he said, citing the mission against ISIS and al-Qaeda. “If US troops were to leave, their place would immediately be filled by terrorists, Iran, Assad and Russia, with grave consequences for our vital interest in that region.”