Within days the US military will finish withdrawing 2,200 US soldiers from Iraq, as the US commander for Middle East forces, General MacKenzie, announced on September 9. This will leave about 3,000 US forces in Iraq. At the same time these forces are leaving Iraq, Washington is sending reinforcements into northeastern Syria. Instead of paying attention to their government’s military decisions in the Mashreq, the big majority of Americans are only watching the election campaign.
But in fact, it is impossible to separate the election from the foreign policy of the Trump administration.
Six weeks before election day, the opinion polls for President Trump are not good. It is vital for him to keep the strong support of his political base. That base rejects wars in the Middle East. Trump, therefore, emphasized the new withdrawal from Iraq, and in addition Secretary of Defense Mike Esper has promised that half of the remaining American soldiers in Afghanistan will withdraw by November.
Trump also tells the American public that the Americans are “practically” out of Syria except for guarding oilfields. He indicates the Syria operation has no costs (in fact, the Syrian operations are costing several billion dollars annually). At the same time, the Trump campaign team warns that Joe Biden voted for the war in Iraq in 2002 and if he wins the election, he will send America into new wars. This is the political message of the recent American military withdrawal.
It is notable that many analysts here insist that American must keep forces in Iraq to contain Iranian influence, but the Trump administration did not condition the new withdrawal on additional actions by Iraqi government against the Popular Mobilization Forces.
The Trump administration seems comfortable with Mustafa Kadhimi and his long-term security reform goals. Some American military training for Iraqi forces will continue. The Trump administration also decided that the 2,000 troops leaving had not contained Iranian influence very well. Instead, the soldiers were a political and military target for Iraqis loyal to Iran. By staying in only a few bases in Iraq, the forces can better protect themselves from the militias, and Kadhimi can say the Americans are gradually withdrawing. Above all, for Trump a short-term political advantage in the November election is more important than a maximum effort against Iranian influence in Iraq.
The Americans are not entirely leaving Iraq, however. They train Iraqi forces in their bases, and they also provide logistical support for the American operations in northeastern Syria. A report from the military experts at the RAND institute last May warned that a complete American military withdrawal from Iraq would make the American military operations in Syria untenable. The RAND military experts recommended only a limited withdrawal from Iraq in order to minimize the difficulties for the military mission in Syria.
Despite Trump’s election politics, that is what the Defense Department is implementing. The base in Erbil is especially important, and it is not a coincidence that the American ambassador visited Erbil last week and announced 250 million dollars in new military aid to the Peshmerga at a time when Erbil suffers from big financial problems.
Thus, the Americans keep bases in Iraq to train Iraqi forces and to provide logistics and intelligence support for the American operations in Syria. The American military mission in Syria no longer really about ISIS. US forces don’t need new armored vehicles and more fighter plane patrols to fight the remaining ISIS guerrilla bands. Instead, Washington hopes the new forces will deter Russian forces that have confronted the Americans in northeast Syria. The Defense and State Departments refuse to withdraw from northeast Syria because of Russian pressure. (Trump himself doesn’t care about staying in Syria as long as there are no casualties and costs are limited. His team hopes the Russians and Iranians will not respond with their own escalations.)
The American mission in Syria still aims to compel Assad to make big political concessions in Geneva and to force Iran to withdraw from Syria. Notably, Ambassador James Jeffrey early this week was again trying to achieve a deal between Syrian Kurdish parties in order to increase political pressure on Damascus. The State Department facilitated a commercial deal between a new American company and Syrian Kurdish general Mazloum Abdi to stop Damascus from buying oil in northeast Syria. There is unspoken satisfaction in Washington at the long lines for benzine and bread shortages in Syrian cities.
Washington is trying to convince the Syrian Kurdish leaders that its forces will stay until the day somewhere in the future when the Assad regime collapses – a different message from the one about ending Middle East wars that Trump is sending to Americans at home.