Picture credit: Hedil Amir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The American position in the Middle East courts peril

Keeping US troops in Iraq and Syria is too much of a gamble

Amidst dozens of attacks on American troops in Iraq and Syria, the United States is risking the lives of American service members and increasing the likelihood of war with Iran. With Iran-backed militias not backing down, and scores of American troops already injured, a withdrawal is key to ensuring that the United States is not once again mired in a Middle Eastern conflict disconnected from vital American interests.

Before the first shots were fired by Hamas militants on October 7, the United States already had troops stationed throughout the Gulf, Iraq, and Syria. These troops were meant to deter Iran and its militias, but their very presence ironically provides Iran with a set of engageable targets if a regional conflict erupts, as a string of attacks in recent days have demonstrated. Troops in Iraq and Syria have protection from less sophisticated rocket and indirect fire attacks, but remain particularly vulnerable to ballistic missiles. 

The addition of a THAAD air defence battery and accompanying Patriot battalions is meant to alleviate this threat. These systems target ballistic missiles rather than the rockets used by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This indicates that Washington is planning for a worst-case scenario of direct conflict with Iran, whose military power is predicated on its advanced ballistic missiles. While these air defences will help insulate some pockets of American troops from attack, the reality is that these troops are still at great risk from an escalation spiral with Iran.

Patriot and THAAD both have limits as to how many interceptions they can make, even under optimal conditions. Their coverage would also not be all-encompassing, and many troops and installations throughout the region would remain unprotected. Furthermore, a fully committed Iran would still be able to saturate these systems and inflict massive damage on U.S. forces. The question is then how to best protect American troops. 

This can be accomplished by a strategic withdrawal. Iraq and Syria contain isolated pockets of a few hundred American troops, whereas Iran courts hundreds of thousands of fighters in these two countries. The qualitative edge of American troops is not enough to overcome this degree of overmatch. These troops are alive because of Iran’s fear of escalation; if that escalation nonetheless occurs, these troops are likely the first on the strike list. The solution is to reposition this combat power elsewhere, preferably offshore. Iran’s reach is far more limited than the United States’. By withdrawing American troops, the United States would be able to retain combat capabilities while incurring less risk. 

Repositioning these troops offshore bolsters American defence

Repositioning these troops offshore bolsters American defence. The addition of two U.S. aircraft carriers in the region provides ample firepower for striking targets in Lebanon, home of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group. And there’s still a possibility that Hezbollah joins the Israel-Gaza war. But it should be remembered that an American intervention is neither inevitable nor desirable. Deterrence will not be bolstered by an aggressive response. The retaliation of militias from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen would instead trigger an escalation which draws in U.S. combat power from other theaters and bears enormous financial and human costs. The prudent course of action is avoiding the cycle of escalation altogether.

Such a course of action is not weakness, either. When President Ronald Reagan made the decision to withdraw American troops from Lebanon, he astutely understood that additional costs in blood would not bring honor to the over 200 service members killed there. Likewise, risking the lives of U.S. service members to deter Iran does not further American interests of avoiding new entanglements. 

At best, these deployments draw significant American resources to dissuade Iranian involvement against Israel. But Israel is a nuclear state, and consequently Iran’s involvement in the war must remain limited, if only for its own survival. At worst, these deployments risk sending signals that war is inevitable. If Iran concludes this, it could prove catastrophic for tens of thousands of American service members within range of Iran’s missiles and foment a conflict that attrites U.S. combat power significantly. 

The United States has been attempting to avert war by establishing deterrence. But in further embedding itself in the Middle East, Washington risks adding to the number of flashpoints from which war could erupt. If Washington’s goal is to achieve peace through strength, this could best be achieved by conserving combat power through troop withdrawals. Washington is currently relying on a hope that Iran keeps a tight leash on its proxies. But if there’s no change, that gamble may be paid off with flag-draped coffins.

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