The Pentagon has denied media reports that the Biden administration may be considering a full withdrawal of American troops from Syria in 2024.
A report in Foreign Policy Wednesday suggested that “the White House is no longer invested in sustaining a mission that it perceives as unnecessary,” quoting “four sources within the Defense and State departments”.
But a Pentagon spokesperson has called the report “erroneous,” according to the Russian RIA Novosty, which had submitted a query to the US Department of Defense.
A withdrawal would be a gift to Iran and its affiliated groups in Iraq and Syria, who have been launching attacks on US forces with the exact same goal. A similar likelihood exists in Iraq, where pro-Iranian groups dominating the parliament have been demanding the withdrawal of US and coalition forces.
The issue is far from clear however.
Charles Lister, director of the Syria and Counterterrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute, who has penned the FP report admits that “no definitive decision has been made” within policy circles of the Biden administration.
Senior, well-placed reporters and observers like Alex Ward of Politico and Aaron Y. Zellin of the Washington Institute have posted conflicting opinions on the matter, both quoting unnamed US officials denying the report.
“I’m actually encouraged to see the White House and Department of Defense come out so quickly to deny,” Lister wrote on X, commenting on rejections of his FP report, “it shows the kind of sensitivity that normally exists only when the claim is true.”
Earlier in the week, reports emerged of a US national security meeting to discuss a plan to urge the Kurdish forces in Syria to partner with the Assad regime against ISIS. Such a plan, if true, would be in line (or complement) any withdrawal plan –to address the vacuum created by the likely absence of American troops.
The Pentagon was quick to deny the report, however, according to CNN, claiming that there was “no intention” to support a partnership between Assad and the Kurds.
But Amberin Zaman –who had broken the report for AlMonitor– hit back with more details to back up her original story.
“An interagency policy committee meeting to explore the idea was held on Jan. 18,” she posted on X. “Are they denying that the sub IPC where the subject was raised as per my admin sources took place?”
Policy circles do look at various scenarios and it would be far from surprising for them to study an eventual withdrawal of US forces from Syria. To ‘consider’ it in a US election year, and in the middle of an ongoing crisis in the region, however, would be a different story altogether.
Since October last year, armed groups backed by Iran have launched more than 150 attacks against American forces in Syria and Iraq. The attacks are said to be in support of Palestinians in Gaza who have been enduring an Israeli onslaught for more than 100 days –following Hamas rampage of border areas inside Israel on 7 October.
That may very well be true –in the short term. The long game, however, has always been to “kick the Americans out of the region,” as stated in clearest terms by many Iranian officials.
It’s hard to draw conclusions from what has been reported so far. But it’s not that hard to imagine the Biden administration contemplating a withdrawal, taking into account its track record in the Middle East, in general, and its Iran policy, in particular. Critics have pointed out the lack of a coherent policy and an eagerness to appease Iran and avoid escalation regardless of Tehran’s actions.
A complete pullout of American troops from Syria may be farther away than suggested in the Foreign Policy report. Any such report, however, even if rejected by US officials as has been this one, would be music to the Ayatollah’s ears.