US troops in Iraq, Syria are sitting ducks
Hardly a week goes by when U.S. troops and contractors in Iraq and Syria are not taking defensive measures to protect themselves from rocket and drone attacks.
In what has become a troubling pattern in both countries, Shiite militia units stocked to the gills with a seemingly unending supply of lethal projectiles and explosive-laden drones targeted U.S. military facilities yet again on Wednesday and Thursday. Two rockets were fired toward Baghdad’s Green Zone early Thursday, with one landing close to the U.S. Embassy. Hours earlier, on Wednesday afternoon, al Asad Air Base in western Iraq, one of the critical Iraqi facilities hosting U.S. forces in the country, came under attack by 14 rockets. U.S. forces took defensive precautions and retaliated, neutralizing the source of the rocket fire near the town of al-Baghdadi. On the same day in next-door Syria, U.S. soldiers stationed near the al-Omar oil field also came under threat from a drone, which was destroyed before it could cause any damage. By the time the day was over, two coalition troops in Iraq were nursing minor injuries.
Fortunately, nobody died in this episode. The trend line, however, is increasingly worrisome. Despite the Biden administration’s latest series of airstrikes against Shiite militia facilities in Iraq and Syria late last month (strikes U.S. defense officials insisted would reintroduce deterrence into the equation), the rocket and drone attacks from these very same militias have continued unabated. Veteran Middle East correspondent Joyce Karam reported there have been a total of five attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria within 72 hours. Nafiseh Kohnavard, a correspondent for the BBC, counts 12 Shiite militia attacks between Tuesday and Wednesday. The Biden administration is drawing an even harder-line than the Trump administration did, promising swift retaliation regardless of whether a U.S. soldier or contractor has been killed.
Thus far, the U.S. has been incredibly fortunate to escape fatalities. But one is left wondering if Washington is tempting fate. The rocket attacks won’t be ending anytime soon. The Shiite militias, many of which have been included in the official Iraqi security forces, appear to be impervious to tough talk from U.S. officials. The kind of normal deterrence that works against the likes of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin doesn’t seem to be effective with these nonstate armed groups. If they were, the rockets would have stopped after the Biden administration conducted its first military action in February.
Logic would suggest that the longer U.S. forces are deployed in Iraq and Syria, the more likely one of these flying rockets or harassing drones will eventually claim the life of an American. President Joe Biden would have to respond militarily in such a situation, which would in turn be highly likely to draw even more hostile fire from Shiite militias that (let’s face it) are now an integral part of Iraq and Syria whether we like it or not. The probability of a full-scale confrontation is not a scenario U.S. officials can casually dismiss. Nor can they assume more airstrikes on yet more militia storage facilities and weapons depots produce the calm the U.S. desperately wants. If precedent is any indication, a stronger U.S. military response would generate the very full-blown confrontation the U.S. rightly hopes to avoid.
U.S. policymakers back in Washington are using the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria to justify continuing the mission when the original mission itself — eliminating Islamic State’s territorial caliphate — ended the moment hundreds of ISIS stragglers surrendered their last patch of territory more than two years ago. Rather than admitting success and removing the troops, however, U.S. officials refused to take success for an answer and chose to hand the U.S. military an altogether different mission-set that is as discombobulated as it is disconnected to direct U.S. national security interests: help create a perfect Iraqi army; hold Syria’s eastern oil fields so the Syrian government can’t get hold of them; ensure every last Iranian boot leaves Iraqi and Syrian soil; and help the Iraqis and the Syrian Kurds kill every last ISIS fighter on the planet. If these goals aren’t the definition of expansive and unattainable goals, I don’t know what is.
It’s well past time for U.S. officials to start asking what many Americans have already asked: What exactly is the purpose of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and Syria? What are U.S. troops truly being asked to risk their lives for? What is the U.S. objective? Is this objective even realistic, or is it meant to rationalize a de facto permanent U.S. force posture in two nations that will remain unstable and violent for a long time to come? Do the risks outweigh the rewards? And are there any rewards to begin with?
Right now, U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria are, in practical terms, sitting ducks. If the Biden administration is deeply serious about ending forever wars and extricating U.S. troops from the Middle East, then it needs to go beyond an unsustainable, downright dangerous status quo that is becoming more unjustifiable with each passing day.
Every argument Biden cited to conclude Washington’s 20-year war in Afghanistan also applies to U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria. There is no reason for Americans in uniform to be stationed in either country — particularly when the risks include being sucked further into a region the U.S. should take pains to get out of.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.