Last week, the U.S. military bombed a site near al-Hurri, along the Iraqi border inside Syria, where Iranian-backed Iraqi militias were allegedly stationed. Although the U.S. launched its missiles across an international border (and without the approval of Congress), White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki framed the strike as a “defensive” response to a series of rocket attacks that have killed one and wounded several Americans over the past two weeks. The American bombing left “up to a handful dead,” according to one U.S. official who spoke with CNN, and Tehran condemned the assault as “illegal and a violation of Syria’s sovereignty” — a perception gap certain to complicate President Joe Biden’s pronounced plans to reverse Donald Trump’s antagonistic Iran policies and rejoin the nuclear deal.
The campaign will do little to further the United States’ objectives in the Middle East (in as much as they can even be articulated at this point), but it heralds something more dispiriting still: That nearly two decades into a regional war, Washington (perhaps willfully) does not understand the Syria-Iraq-Iran nexus, and that the Biden administration is following a failed blueprint in the Middle East — a reality that was thrown into even sharper relief when the U.S. elected not to punish Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) after the release of a declassified intelligence report that found he was directly responsible for the murder of the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi.
Few mainstream outlets have even bothered to ask what these pesky paramilitaries are up to. The U.S. military first intervened in Syria in 2014 following the Islamic State’s takeover of the country’s Eastern territories, along with the Northern and Western areas of Iraq. So did Iraqi Shias, who did a good amount of fighting in the bloody recapture of ISIS-occupied territories after the U.S.-trained Iraqi army all but collapsed. These militias, following the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call to defend Baghdad, formed under an umbrella organization known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) with the support of the U.S. military. Over the last seven years, American troops have seen their mission in Syria change and change again, from defeating ISIS, to preserving Kurdish autonomy, to “containing” Iran and Russia (both of which have fought the Islamic State, albeit in alliance with Syrian strongman Bashar Al-Assad), to “securing” the country’s sparse oil wells. But during this time, the mission of Iraq’s militias has evolved as well — from defending the country against ISIS onslaughts to resisting America’s ongoing occupation. And so long as U.S. troops remain in place, significant segments of Iraq’s population will see these paramilitaries — and their rocket attacks — as legitimate.
The United States’ intervention in Syria has looked a lot like its disastrous invasion of Baghdad in 2003, which shattered the Iraqi state, unleashed a brutal civil war and gave rise to a deadly phoenix that would become ISIS. Both have led to the deaths of more than 1,000 militia members, along with countless civilians. And neither is likely to see a full withdrawal of U.S. troops in the immediate future.
Joe Biden, who believes his own son’s fatal cancer was caused by exposure to toxic burn pits during his tour in Iraq, has repeatedly asked that God bless our troops. But keeping those same soldiers in a war zone like the Baghdad, Balad, and Erbil, Iraq, bases struck by rockets over the last two weeks, with no discernible aim, might be considered a sacrilege. Exacerbating matters, we are inundated with stories about Tehran and Moscow’s nefarious objectives in Syria, even as the story remains more complicated than that. (Tehran, for example, is much less powerful than Washington’s courtiers in the media would have you believe.)
The same can be said of the recent rocket attacks that provoked the Biden administration’s deadly response in Syria. Iraqi militias pose no danger to the people of Baltimore, Maryland or Little Rock, Arkansas, and Baghdad does not demand an American military presence. To the extent Americans face a security threat at all, it is one of their own making. What’s more, Saudi Arabia, which is supposed to be a key U.S. ally in the region, has tacitly and explicitly backed Sunni insurgents who have killed scores of U.S. troops in conflicts across the Middle East. These include Al Qaeda and other Islamist-elements in the Syrian civil war.
Which brings us to the Biden administration’s decision not to penalize MBS and Saudi royal family in any meaningful way for the dismemberment of an American journalist. Coupled with a dubious missile strike that could have been eschewed in favor of full military withdrawal and negotiations towards diplomatic normalization with Iran, Biden’s first major foreign policy decisions bring us no closer to an overdue exit than Trump’s buffoonish bluster over the past four years. Instead, he has provided seemingly the only thing American empire has left to offer: tough-guy theater for a rapidly dwindling audience, in this case Tehran.
When Trump ordered the extrajudicial assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Commander Qasem Soleimani, in January 2020, the Iraqi parliament overwhelmingly voted to expel U.S. troops from the country. As is its wont, the U.S. effectively ignored the resolution, with Trump threatening to sanction Baghdad “like they’ve never seen before ever” if it decided to follow through. Then, as now, U.S. solders remain bait for attacks that Washington can cynically exploit in a war on terror that’s now entering its 18th year.
This is the tired playbook that Joe Biden has inherited and the one he seems intent on following, no matter how unsuccessful it’s been or how much chaos it has wrought. Ironically, if Biden truly wanted to be a transformative president, he might follow an even older strategy — one pursued by Alexander the Great and the ancient Greeks. He’d withdraw the troops and cut the Gordian knot that has become U.S. foreign policy, along with America’s losses in the Middle East. Anything less is a formula for forever war, ever more.
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Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and director of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. He co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and visit his website.