NORTHEASTERN SYRIA - MAY 26: A U.S. Army soldier stands guard as his commanding officer and allied troops meet with local villagers on May 26, 2021 near the Turkish border in northeastern Syria. U.S. forces, part of Task Force WARCLUB operate from remote combat outposts in the area, coordinating with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in combatting residual ISIS extremists and deterring pro-Iranian militia. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why are US troops in Syria?

It is time for them to go home

The latest series of tit-for-tat attacks in Syria have failed to protect American troops. On Monday, Iran-backed militias conducted another rocket attack against US troops following a US drone strike meant to deter further attacks. This was not the first time US service members have been attacked in Syria, nor the first time the US has engaged in a retaliatory attack against these militias. Rather, this is nearly the 80th time since President Joe Biden took office that US troops have been attacked in Syria and Iraq. It is incumbent on Washington to withdraw these troops before more American troops pay the price for their leaders’ inaction. 

It is unlikely that a corner has been turned after nearly 80 failed attempts to establish deterrence. More likely, future attacks will remind Washington that it cannot bomb its adversaries into compliance. These groups can impose costs in American blood for as long as US troops are there. Washington has no strategic reasons to stay in a region with abundant pitfalls and few benefits. By contrast, these groups are endemic and exist largely to expel the US presence in the region. That means that these militias simply have to run down the clock. They will persist until US troops leave while Washington stays until the futility of the US presence is acknowledged.

The considerable risk incurred by US service members has to be commensurate with benefits to the United States. In the case of Iraq and Syria, this is not the case. ISIS, the chief justification for US involvement, has dwindled to an entity with no territory and virtually no resources, and whose leadership has been so thoroughly attrited that their identities are largely unknown

Ironically, maintaining a military presence in Iraq and Syria also undermines the aim of containing Iran. The US presence gives Iran leverage over these Iraqi and Syrian militias, allowing Iran to expand its influence by co-opting local groups opposed to Washington’s occupation of their country. Iran’s influence on Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, for instance, has effectively capitalized on anti-American sentiment to shift Iraq’s political and military apparatuses to align with Tehran. 

True deterrence is better established by letting locals take the lead role. Saudi Arabia and Iran, in the absence of American leadership, recently negotiated their way towards peaceful, albeit not friendly, relations. Washington’s influence was neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to enable this success; it was an impediment whose absence was a blessing. 

Iran’s reach is also not as dominating as Washington fear mongering might suggest. Washington has brought unlikely partners together; many Iraqi Shi’a are wary of Iran’s specific theocratic model of Wilayat al-Faqih, the guardianship of the jurist, while the Syrian regime historically preferred alignment with its Arab neighbors. In Washington’s absence, it’s likely that Iran’s sphere of influence would contract in the face of organic pushback. 

The status quo does not work for the benefit of the United States

Neither ISIS nor Iran nor any other faux-justification are a reason to stay in Iraq and Syria. The latest tit-for-tat drone attacks prove that the same formula doesn’t produce different results. It was tried under President Donald Trump, and it failed. It was tried under President Biden, and it failed again. The status quo does not work for the benefit of the United States, its troops, or its people. It needs to be upended. 

The United States has just passed two decades of its presence in Iraq. In this timespan, Washington’s meddling has exacerbated sectarianism, unduly risked the security of American troops, and maintained a status quo with dubious and unclear aims. There must be an end to the failed policies of the past. As rockets and drones continue to target US troops, Washington has a choice to make. It can continue to put brave servicemen and women in harm’s way needlessly, or it can pursue a safer, smarter path by bringing them home.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover