Iran will make US withdrawal from region as painful as possible
By Khaled Abou Zahr *
The year may be just beginning, but US troops in Iraq and Syria have already been attacked by drones three times. It should be noted that, in both countries, the American presence has diminished. In Syria, only hundreds of US troops remain in the northeast of the country for counterterrorism purposes. In Iraq, the number is less than 2,500 and troops have moved from active combat to an advisory role. In both countries, the main focus is now on fighting Daesh, but most of the attacks against them come from Iranian-backed groups.
The reductions in the number of troops and the change in their roles come at a time when the United States is negotiating with Iran in Vienna. It is clear that Tehran is directing these attacks to get its message across and put pressure on Washington. The mullahs are confident that the United States will not retaliate or respond firmly to avoid any escalation. The use of armed drones is highly effective in its asymmetry and ability to create irritation without being large enough to provoke a strong military response. It is also an effective communication tool from Iran that underscores its ability to rain down drones and missiles and make life even more difficult in the United States.
There is a growing parallel between the Taliban’s goals in Afghanistan and Iran’s goals in the Middle East. The goal now is clearly to push for a complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria and Iraq. Tehran is confident in its thinking that, through pressure in the negotiations in Vienna, as well as official political voices from the Iraqi and Syrian governments, it can pin down US forces. America has already noticed that, since its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is now struggling to assess counter-terrorism risks, particularly with regard to the links between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and what the implications for national security are. American.
The US military therefore understands that a withdrawal from Iraq and Syria would mean more difficulties with regard to its counterintelligence missions in both countries. This applies not only to Daesh, but also and above all to all terrorist activities sponsored by Iran. Unlike negotiations on the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, statements by US military officials have been more direct in condemning Iranian proxies and forces, blaming them for the attacks and warning them of potential retaliation. Some military experts say the small number of US forces in Syria and Iraq are more like hostages than a deterrent.
Last November, a bipartisan group of members of the House of Representatives raised legal questions regarding US military activities that do not involve Daesh. Their letter specifically questioned US airstrikes on sites in Syria used by Iran-backed militias. It implied that former President Donald Trump and his successor Joe Biden had extended current legal authorizations with the missions in Syria instead of seeking congressional approval. The purpose of this letter was to avoid future legal loopholes that could allow more “endless wars”. However, it also means that they view US military activities in response to Iranian aggression as outside the current legal framework, so Iranian terrorist proxies are indeed in luck.
The US aims to continue its withdrawal from the region and so the question remains whether this will be executed without reducing pressure from Iranian-backed forces. Could a new push be the solution instead? In 2007, President George W. Bush ordered the deployment of over 20,000 troops to Iraq with the aim of improving the overall situation to enable reconciliation and a state building process. General David Petraeus assumed command of the Multinational Force in Iraq and achieved the objectives of his mission. But it is highly doubtful that the current US administration will follow or even be able to follow such a strategy, especially since it considers that the same strategy has failed in Afghanistan. This leaves the United States with few options.
This lack of clarity – whether on the role of the American army or on the legal aspect of its operations – underlines the absence of an overall strategy, not only for the military presence of Washington in Syria and Iraq, but also on its geopolitical objectives. This has become true for the entire Middle East as it was for Afghanistan. The American army, which tries to maintain a difficult balance and stability despite its weak presence, finds itself repelling Iranian provocations, particularly in northern Syria, where the roles and alliances of the various actors are unclear. This situation is by no means tenable, especially when Russia and China are more assertive in their commitment to the Middle East.
It’s similar to the situation in Afghanistan, where the file was passed from one US administration to another until it reached a point where no one really remembered the original purpose and what could still be achieved. Therefore, given the geopolitical arrangements in Syria and Iraq, everything points to the Biden administration’s pursuit of an honorable exit. The rehabilitation of Bashar Assad and the new political arrangements in Iraq go in this direction. The political landscape in Washington is also turned inward to avoid the repetition of such eternal wars, rather than to maintain regional security. However, this scenario will only become reality with a nuclear deal. Tehran has understood this and will try to make this exit as painful for the United States as its departure from Afghanistan.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is managing director of Eurabia, a media and technology company, and editor-in-chief of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.