Washington’s Middle East Strategy Is All Cost, No Benefit

A month after a drone attack killed three American troops at a US military outpost in Jordan’s borderlands with Syria, decisionmakers in DC are still contending with restricted policy options. The strike at the Tower 22 outpost came as instability ripped across the greater Middle East. Within days, the US said it retaliated with strikes on more than 85 sites in Syria and Iraq that targeted Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds force and “affiliated” militias. As the risk of greater conflict looms, the violence has revealed the growing constraint on America’s foreign policy choices in the Middle East as a result of maintaining active troop deployments.

As Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip continues and tensions in the Red Sea worsen, it is high time for the US to discuss the withdrawal of its troops from the Middle East — a region where their lives are threatened thanks to ongoing conflicts and instability.

In considering the costs and benefits of troop deployments, the recent American casualties were not incurred in the pursuit of actively protecting American security interests in the region. Thus, it is crucial to evaluate why maintaining these troops was worth the risk and the cost in the first place. In the words of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, American troops in Syria, Jordan, and Iraq remain in place to ensure the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But ISIS’s capabilities have been far diminished since they were largely defeated on the battlefield years ago.

Iranian Proxies

Since the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took control of the last ISIS strongholds in 2019, the group’s territorial hold has remained negligible. Local conditions in both Syria and Iraq make it highly unlikely that the armed group could surge again. More recently, it appears US deployments have focused on attacking weapons depots belonging to Iranian-backed militia groups. These strikes have failed to deter the proxies — just look at the more than 165 attacks against US forces since Israel’s war on Gaza started on Oct. 7.

It would be an easy pitfall to label the recent casualties as part of the costs a country must bear in order to protect its security interests. The repeated attacks on American forces underscore how complicated it is to engage with non-state groups such as the Houthis, Hezbollah, and Hamas. US policymakers have struggled to develop a strong posture in the region since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack.

On one hand, policymakers must maintain a defensive posture against frequent attacks on American troops and bases, while also avoiding confrontation with the interests of other nations in the region at a time where tensions already run high. The ongoing crisis in the Levant also highlights the crossroads that American policymakers are increasingly finding themselves at. They are stuck weighing both the baggage of supporting both allied state and nonstate actors against the potential for becoming further materially and politically involved.

Armed Groups

To compound the complexity of maintaining troop deployments, and thus the potential of incurring material costs as a result of attack or reputational costs for failing to maintain a strong military posture, confronting non-state militias poses unique challenges.

One, although nonstate groups still follow rational choice making, they can often afford to incur higher costs, resulting in choices that nation states would consider risky. This increases the factor of unpredictability and reduces the effectiveness of deterrence against further attacks that a large military power like the US would normally wield.

It would be an easy pitfall to label the recent casualties as part of the costs a country must bear in order to protect its security interests.

Two, attributing responsibility for these groups to a state is politically risky as well as difficult to ascertain. Biden recently stated that he “holds Iran responsible” in “the sense they’re supplying weapons.” For his part, Secretary Austin has repeated the line that the US is not at war with Iran. While Iran does supply weapons and support to its proxy militias and non-state actors, it is difficult to pin down how much Iran is involved in the planning and execution of attacks such as these. Historically, Iran’s interests have not always fully aligned with the militia groups it backs. That is why, the interests and strategies of the armed groups — as well as their relationship with potential supporters — must also be considered in policy and strategic choices.

Finally, the capabilities of armed groups concerning drones has increased exponentially in recent years. Cheap, slower, and lower altitude drones posing technical challenges to modern air defense radars originally developed to detect large, fast aircraft. Commercial drone technologies have become more attractive to armed non-state organizations because they’re easy to procure and use, and suit a range of tactical, technical, and operational capabilities. The use of a kamikaze drone in the attack on Tower 22 in Jordan shows how deadly low-budget capabilities can be.

Risk of Escalation

The retaliatory strikes against the Iranian-linked groups in Syria and Iraq were to be expected following the deadly attack, but responding with more force will only mean more consequences in a region fragmented by competing national interests and non-state armed groups. The potential for escalation across the Middle East already stands high, and maintaining troops in risky and vulnerable positions will continue to force American decision makers to respond to attacks while also risking adding fuel to the fire.

As the murky network of state-linked armed groups expands, American troops will endure further attacks. By maintaining these deployments, policymakers are ensuring the potential for the US to suffer costs, hamstringing their own foreign policy and military options, and increasing the likelihood that more casualties will occur.

The most likely outcome of preserving the status quo force posture will be upholding the cycle of retaliatory attacks as American policymakers find themselves trapped between presenting a picture of strength, while also avoiding further escalation with Middle Eastern states. As conflicts across the Middle East boil over, the US should consider withdrawing troops — or at least drastically scaling down the number deployed in Iraq and Syria. It is the only way for the US to balance between restraint and security-focused political and military choices.

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