On November 7, President Biden spoke of the “truly sacred obligation” Americans have to take care of our troops. He’s right about that obligation, but his policy in Iraq and Syria is violating his most sacred duty as their commander in chief: to give his troops a clear, attainable mission and not to leave them as sitting ducks.
There’s no other way to describe the role the 900 U.S. troops in Syria are playing, for example. With the collapse of the ISIS caliphate in 2018, then-President Donald Trump announced that “we have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there,” adding that there would be a “full” and “rapid” withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. His defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and his Middle East guru Brett McGurk—who is now Biden’s Middle East guru—resigned in protest.
After the resignations, the Pentagon, National Security Adviser John Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jordanian King Abdullah pressed Trump to leave troops in Syria, and he did. His Syria envoy then repeatedly lied to him about how many troops were in the country, and Trump somehow settled on the idea that “We’re out of Syria, other than we kept the oil. I kept the oil.” But we were not out of Syria, and we did not keep the oil. The troops were left in Syria with no domestic or international legal authorization.
Similarly, after the Iraqi government fought ferociously to stick to the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement with the United States rather than give U.S. forces immunity from prosecution, the Obama administration wound the U.S. presence down to roughly 5,000 troops in the country by the time it left office. A few thousand troops remain there now, officially under the pretense of combating ISIS, but in truth, they are there for the purpose of trying to limit Iran’s influence. As a March Associated Press article somewhat archly put it: ISIS is “the much-stated reason for the continued U.S. troop presence…but a key reason is Iran.”
And in that context, U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq find themselves under steady rocket fire from militias, mostly backed by Iran. The small numbers of U.S. forces are dotted across vast expanses, in some cases in remote areas, to disrupt Iranian influence and supply lines across the region. Just in the past three weeks, there have been at least 40 attacks on U.S. troops, with reports of traumatic brain and other injuries affecting 45 Americans.
So why does the Biden administration, which solemnly intones about sacred obligations to servicemembers, have these troops tied down as bait for regional militias? The entire region is furious at U.S. support for the Israeli campaign in Gaza. Biden and his administration know very well that as long as they back that war, U.S. forces deployed in remote areas might as well have targets on their backs. Why not bring them home?
The answer may lie in a 2019 report Congress funded to examine U.S. policy in Syria. The authors, which included scholars who now serve as Biden’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East and his acting deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, argued that the United States has “key national security interests at stake” in Syria, and called on the government to “defend the rules-based international order” in that country and to “maintain pressure” on Iran, “lest [it] build up its strategic capabilities.”
Biden’s Middle East team—the authors of the Syria report who now run Middle East policy for him, and McGurk, who is the leader of Biden’s Middle East policy—view the region as divided between Iran and its partners and everyone else, and believe the U.S. role is to back the everyone-else coalition against Iran. In this view, these small deployments, though militarily insignificant, are an annoyance to Iran, and therefore virtuous. As a senior defense official said while gloating about the militia attacks’ lack of success, “Iran’s objective for a long time has been to force a withdrawal of the US military from the region. What I would note is, we’re still there.”
We are still there. But every day there are more rocket attacks on our forces, who have been forgotten about and taken for granted for too long. We appear to have been playing down their injuries, just as Trump played down the injuries suffered in Iran’s retaliation for the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Thank God the only death so far has been from a contractor’s heart attack during a false alarm.
The militias firing at our forces in Iraq and Syria haven’t been the A-Team, and no U.S. troops have died yet. But this Veterans’ Day, President Biden ought to take a moment and ask himself whether the mission he has given them is worthy of the risks they are being asked to run—and the risks of escalation that mission poses to so many more servicemembers. The greatest duty a commander in chief has is to give his troops a lawful mission, clearly defined, with the escalatory potential clearly bounded. Biden has failed these troops miserably in that regard. He should bring them home.