How Would a US Withdrawal from Iraq Affect Northeast Syria?
By Wladimir van Wilgenburg
The war in Gaza has increased tensions between Iranian-backed proxies and the US military, with Iran-backed groups carrying out over 160 attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria since October. Iraqi PM Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani has repeatedly called for a timetable for US forces to leave Iraq and chaired a joint Higher Military Commission meeting between the US and Iraq on Jan. 27 to discuss the reduction of US forces in Iraq. On Feb. 7, US forces conducted a unilateral strike in Iraq in response to the attacks on US service members in Jordan on Jan. 28, which killed three US soldiers. Also on Feb. 2, the US killed 40 Iran-backed militants in response to the Jordan attack. After the latest strike in Iraq, Baghdad said they were compelled to terminate the coalition mission.
This could impact the future of autonomous administration and the Syrian Kurds, as the presence of US forces in Iraq is closely intertwined with the future of North and East Syria. This is because US forces in Syria cannot sustain themselves without the US presence in Iraq. Iran aims to curtail US influence in the region to solidify its control and influence in both Iraq and Syria, exploiting the current conflict in Gaza for its own interests.
Following the battle of Kobanê in 2014, US forces have collaborated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), formed in 2015 in northeast Syria (commonly called Rojava), in their efforts against ISIS. The relationship between the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the US were established by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as described in my book. Until now, the PUK still has a good relationship with the PUK’s Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG), despite Turkish pressure on the PUK and drone strikes in Slemani. Peshmerga forces also played a role in the battle for Kobanê, whose entry was negotiated by former Kurdish President Masoud Barzani.
In Oct. 2019, under the Trump administration, US troops temporarily or partially pulled out during the Turkish operation in Serê Kaniyê and Girê Spî, but returned due to domestic bipartisan opposition in the US Congress towards his unpopular decision. As a result, there are still nearly 900 US troops in Deir ez-Zour and the Hasakah province. Moreover, there have been recent discussions within the US government over a possible withdrawal from Syria and the need for the SDF to partner with the Syrian government against ISIS in order to keep the anti-ISIS campaign afloat if the US leaves. Brett McGurk, now Middle East envoy, said in 2019 that the US was considering the option then as well. But so far, the Pentagon and US officials have denied plans to withdraw from Syria. Furthermore, the majority of the US Senate has twice rejected a resolution to withdraw from Syria in March and December of last year
Both the Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Kurds prefer the US to stay, not only to fight ISIS but also to counterbalance the influence of Iran and Turkey. “We are not asking the U.S. army to stay here forever, nor to protect us. Rather, we tell them they must stay until a political solution is reached,” SDF’s Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi told the Washington Institute’s Fikra Forum in Jan. 2022, adding that the war against ISIS is ongoing. Moreover, SDF Commander-in-Chief Abdi told Reuters on Feb. 8, that he received assurances from US officials that their missions would continue and warned that a withdrawal would lead to more threats from ISIS, Iran-backed groups, and Turkey. Nevertheless, he said they do not expect US troops to stay forever.
Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani on Jan. 16, in Davos said that US troops should stay, since ISIS is still a threat. “We need international cooperation and support to bring stability to Iraq and the region.” On Feb. 8, he told NBC News that he would not call for US troops to withdraw and that the Kurdistan Region needs more support.
Nevertheless, despite the Kurdish preference for the continued presence of US troops, their presence has not deterred Iran and Turkey from targeting locations in northeast Syria and the Kurdistan Region by air, drone, and missile strikes, as demonstrated by the Turkish drone and airstrikes targeting civilian infrastructure in northeast Syria between Jan. 13-16, and the Iranian ballistic missile attack on a civilian home in Erbil on Jan. 15. The US also did not back an Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum in 2017, despite the pro-Western stance of the Kurds.
The futures of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are also heavily interlinked due to the fact that US logistical support comes from bases in the Kurdistan Region. Furthermore, the US troop presence in northeast Syria is sustained through an air bridge from Erbil and on the ground through the Fish Khabour border gate in the Duhok province. Therefore, the US played a major role in keeping the Fish Khabour gate open during tensions that erupted between the authorities in northeast Syria and the Kurdistan Region.
I myself flew a few times embedded with the US-led coalition from Erbil to northeast Syria, and saw the strong interlinkage between coalition bases in the Kurdistan Region and northeast Syria.
“Coalition troops in Syria rely on logistics support from U.S. forces based in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region,” Myles B. Caggins III, a former spokesman for the US-led Coalition in Iraq, told The Kurdish Center for Studies.
Moreover, Nicholas A. Heras, the Senior Director for Strategy and Programs at New Lines Institute, agreed. “The United States cannot maintain a forward operating presence in Syria without the logistical hubs in northern Iraq (Kurdistan Region). American forces in Iraq and Syria are part of a package deal.”
Aaron Stein, Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) and author of the US war against ISIS also added, “If the US were indeed asked to leave, sustaining the presence in Syria will be difficult. In theory, the US could keep US forces in the country via resupply from Jordan, but that would be challenging.”
“However, at some point, this mission will end. It may never be the ideal time, but at some point, Iraq and Iran are going to make the determination that ISIS is ‘defeated enough’ and that they can shoulder the burden without the United States. Of course, the Kurds would be the biggest loser, so I do wonder how the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) might try to play this and how that could impact the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces).”
If US troops withdraw from Iraq and Syria, the impact would be more significant for the Syrian Kurds. They could risk losing their autonomous status, as Damascus has thus far displayed no interest in reaching an agreement with the Kurds or acknowledging their Administration. Although Damascus previously had Russia-backed security agreements with the Syrian Kurds to contain Turkish influence, such as in Oct. 2019.
In such a scenario, the SDF would face the dilemma of confronting the Russian-backed Syrian army or Turkish cross-border operations. It is likely that they would choose to engage with Damascus and potentially integrate the SDF into the Syrian army. However, Abdi told Reuters that the SDF in that case would not seek partnership with the Syrian army, which he said is not able to fight ISIS. Previously, during the partial US withdrawal in 2019, the SDF established a security agreement with Damascus through Russian mediation, allowing Syrian troops to be stationed at contact points with the Turkish army.
For the Kurdistan Region, the situation would be less challenging than for the Syrian Kurds. Despite the possibility of increased Iranian influence in Baghdad, the Kurdistan Region remained intact during the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, thanks to its recognized constitutional status.
Also in Jan. 2020, Iraq‘s parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling on the government to expel US troops from the country as Iran-US tensions escalated following the killing of top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and top PMU leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a US strike near the airport in Baghdad. Despite this, US troops still remained in Iraq.
It is unlikely that US troops will leave before the upcoming US elections in November 2024. However, Iraqi Prime Minister Sudani may seek to reduce the US troop presence before the 2025 Iraqi elections.
However, retired US Col. Myles said it is doubtful that U.S. troops will depart Iraq anytime soon. “When Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani visits the White House (in the near future), he and President Biden are likely to issue a joint statement reaffirming U.S.-Iraq security cooperation and, perhaps, a new name for Operation Inherent Resolve; but the American troops will remain.”
“It’s important to remember that the U.S. military provides the senior leadership, logistics, and communications for international troops from more than a dozen nations of the anti-ISIS Coalition; if America goes, the mission collapses. Not to be forgotten is the $1 billion of military aid provided to the Government of Iraq and specialized advice and assistance.”
Nevertheless, if Republican candidate and former US President Donald Trump wins the future US election against President Joe Biden, things could change. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who has supported Trump, was behind the failed resolution in March for troops to leave Syria.
“Trump could unilaterally withdraw from Iraq and Syria without any consideration for the wishes of Congress. Although he might not want to look “weak on Iran,” and withdraw from Iraq and Syria while U.S. forces are under fire from Iranian-backed groups,” New Lines analyst Heras concluded.