US Withdrawal from Syria and Iraq: The Worst-Case Scenario

January 29, 2024 (NEO - Brian Berletic) - Rumors and announcements have swirled recently regarding the presence of US troops in Syria and Iraq, and the prospect of at least a drawdown of troops taking place in one or both locations. This follows escalating violence between local militias and US forces, who have traded missiles and airstrikes amid the ongoing Israeli invasion of Gaza and a resulting decline in regional security.

While the Pentagon was quick to deny claims that US forces might withdraw from Syria, CNN in a January 25, 2024 article, “US and Iraqi governments expected to start talks on future of US military presence in the country,” would note that discussions would “focus on whether and when it will be feasible to end the US military presence in Iraq.”

A similar process took place preceding the eventual withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in Central Asia, completed in August 2021.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan was interpreted at the time as a symptom of waning US power, and while that may be a contributing factor, other analysts feared it was merely a means of freeing up US resources to expand conflict elsewhere.

This fear was confirmed by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during a press conference in December 2022, in which he admitted:

When it comes to Russia’s war against Ukraine, if we were still in Afghanistan, it would have, I think, made much more complicated the support that we’ve been able to give and that others have been able to give Ukraine to resist and push back against the Russian aggression.

It should be noted that the US had been deliberately drawing Russia into a wider conflict in Ukraine for years leading up to Russia’s Special Military Operation. The RAND Corporation in a September 2019 policy paper titled, “Extending Russia: Competing from Advantageous Ground,” would include an entire chapter titled, “Provide Lethal Aid to Ukraine,” explaining that:

Expanding U.S. assistance to Ukraine, including lethal military assistance, would likely increase the costs to Russia, in both blood and treasure, of holding the Donbass region. More Russian aid to the separatists and an additional Russian troop presence would likely be required, leading to larger expenditures, equipment losses, and Russian casualties. The latter could become quite controversial at home, as it did when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

The following month, under the Trump administration, the US would begin supplying Ukraine lethal aid in the form of Javelin anti-tank missiles, ABC News would report. It was clearly the beginning of a policy meant to draw Russia in and draw as much “blood and treasure” from Russia as possible. It was at this time a withdrawal from Afghanistan was under serious consideration. It would begin under the Trump administration and finally be fully implemented under the subsequent Biden administration.

The withdrawal, in hindsight, was a clear prerequisite for freeing up the resources required for the upcoming US proxy war in Ukraine against Russia.

Withdrawal from Iraq and Syria Equals More, Not Less War

It is thus troubling to consider similar policy papers to RAND Corporation’s 2019 “Extending Russia,” exist and lay out options for likewise drawing Iran into a large-scale war with US-backed regime change as the ultimate objective.

Such papers specifically lay out the necessary prerequisites for doing so, and note the US occupation of Iraq as an obstruction for these planned provocations designed to draw Iran into wider war.

Among the many provocations laid out in the 2009 Brooking Institution’s paper, “Which Path to Persia? Options for a New American Strategy toward Iran,” is the use of Israel as a proxy to attack and draw Iran into a war the US can wade into after hostilities begin.

In Chapter 5 titled, “LEAVE IT TO BIBI Allowing or Encouraging an Israeli Military Strike,” the Brookings Institution’s authors explain that in order for Israeli warplanes to strike Iran, they must overfly either US allies or nations occupied by US forces themselves, implicating the US in the strikes and negating the primary benefit of this option, “distancing the United States from culpability.” 

The paper notes:

As the occupying power in Iraq, the United States is responsible for defending Iraqi airspace. The alternatives via Turkish airspace (over 2,200 kilometers) or Saudi airspace (over 2,400 kilometers) would also put the attack force into the skies of U.S. allies equipped with American-supplied air defenses and fighter aircraft. In the case of Turkey, an Israeli overflight would be further complicated by the fact that Turkey is a NATO ally that the United States has a commitment to defend, and it hosts a large, joint Turkish-American airbase along the most likely route of attack.

The paper also notes:

From the American perspective, this negates the whole point of the option—distancing the United States from culpability—and it could jeopardize American efforts in Iraq, thus making it a possible nonstarter for Washington.

An obvious solution exists to this problem, not only have US troops leave Iraq, but leave Iraq on apparently bad terms with Baghdad. Even if withdrawal is still underway when Israeli warplanes cross Iraqi airspace, Washington can attempt to convince the world that it was in the process of leaving the region, and this was a decision made by Israel, and Israel alone.

Recent attempts by the US to appear to urge restraint from Israel in its operations in Gaza, are likewise meant to grant Washington plausible deniability regarding Israel’s escalating provocations across the entire region where Israeli forces are not only invading and planning a long-term occupation of Gaza, but are also carrying out airstrikes in Lebanon and Syria, with Iran the next logical target for Israeli provocations.

Another important consideration regarding a US withdrawal from either Syria or Iraq (or both) is the removal of isolated, vulnerable US bases that would be quickly targeted and destroyed should war be provoked with Iran.

And while a US withdrawal would make Israeli provocations more convincing in an attempt to trigger a wider war with Iran and also remove vulnerable US troops from the line of fire if such efforts succeed, a US withdrawal or drawdown from the Middle East could also be done simply to free up additional resources for Washington’s ongoing proxy war in Ukraine against Russia, or perhaps for ongoing efforts to provoke war with China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Like the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is tempting to assume the US is on the backfoot and in retreat, but recent events have made it clear that if the US is withdrawing forces from one long-standing conflict, it is only to free up resources for an even larger and more dangerous one.

Only time will tell what Washington’s true motives may be, however considering the likely motives of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in freeing up resources for the much more dangerous proxy war in Ukraine, caution should be exercised in analyzing US hints at similar withdrawals from the Middle East.


Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.