How the US military can take on terrorism threats in Iraq and Syria without staying there forever

ReutersLate ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an undated picture released by the US Defence Department, October 30, 2019.
  • The killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria last month is the latest blow to the terrorist group leveled by the US and its local partners.
  • The US Special Forces operators who swooped in on al-Baghdadi’s compound came from several US outposts in the region.
  • But the US doesn’t need to maintain a permanent footprint in the Middle East in order to strike at terrorist threats effectively, argues Defence Priorities senior fellow Enea Gjoza.
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Baghdadi’s death demonstrates effectiveness of targeted raids—and the futility of endless occupations.

Anadolu AgencyThe remains of the compound where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed during a US military raid.
  • Other than preventing significant, long-term disruptions to global oil flows, the US interest in the Middle East is eliminating anti-US terrorist threats, primarily from radical Sunni terrorists, of which ISIS is one prominent branch.
  • Completely, methodically withdrawing US ground forces from Syria and Iraq would shift the counterterrorism burden from the US back to local actors: Syria, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and others.
  • The US will continually monitor and strike anti-US threats, by special-operations raids or other measures if need be.
  • Occupying parts of Syria, which remains impoverished and riven by sectarian conflict, is a costly and dangerous burden that we should be glad to hand off to others, especially adversaries.

US military capability to monitor and strike globally is unmatched.

Special Operations Command
  • The US has the most robust intelligence-gathering capability in the world, spending more than $US70 billion annually.
  • That is more than the annual military budgets for the UK, France, Germany, and even Russia.
  • Along with the ability to strike targets globally through land- and sea-based aircraft, drones, and special forces, this intelligence capability enables counterterrorism strikes everywhere.

Middle East stakeholders have a strong interest in countering terror, supporting US anti-terror efforts.

Associated PressA fighter from the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces at a post where US troops were based, in Tal Abyad town on the Turkish border in Syria, October 7, 2019.
  • Local partners are useful for gathering intelligence and conducting counterterrorism raids-but this can be arranged on the basis of mutual interests without permanent US security commitments.
  • All major regional actors have a greater self-interest in destroying ISIS’s remnants than the US; that interest encourages cooperation with US anti-terror efforts.
  • Syrian and Iraqi Kurds provided intelligence for the Baghdadi raid despite the end of the formal US-Kurdish partnership, and Russia and Turkey permitted overflight, despite rocky US relations.
  • The withdrawal of US forces from Syria and Iraq would leave ISIS’s remnants surrounded by hostile powers.

Local government is most effective at counterterrorism.

Associated PressA US military convoy drives by a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the town of Qamishli in northern Syria, October 26. 2019.
  • ISIS and Al-Qaeda-linked fighters remain present in Syria where the Syrian government has not yet re-established its authority.
  • Despite its atrocities, the Syrian government is effective at rooting out terrorism in territory it controls.
  • The administration’s plan to keep US troops stationed near Syria’s oil fields and the base in Al-Tanf seems designed to deny the Syrian regime control of Syria-but undermining the Syrian government enables conditions under which terrorism can flourish.

US intervention changed the balance of power in Syria—withdrawal would result in a return to that balance.

Associated PressUS airmen check their manifest for military equipment to be loaded onto a cargo plane at Kobani Landing Zone in Syria, October 24, 2019.
  • Other than preventing significant, long-term disruptions to global oil flows, the US interest in the Middle East is eliminating anti-US terrorist threats, primarily from radical Sunni terrorists, of which ISIS is one prominent branch.
  • Completely, methodically withdrawing US ground forces from Syria and Iraq would shift the counterterrorism burden from the US back to local actors: Syria, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and others.
  • The US will continually monitor and strike anti-US threats, by special forces raids or other measures if need be.
  • Occupying parts of Syria, which remains impoverished and riven by sectarian conflict, is a costly and dangerous burden that we should be glad to hand off to others, especially adversaries.

Full military withdrawal from Syria allows vigilance against terrorism.

Associated PressTurkish and Russian patrol is seen near the town of Darbasiyah, Syria, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
  • The administration has repeatedly stated its intent to withdraw US forces from Syria-each time, it has failed to do so. US forces continue to occupy parts of Syria and are reportedly returning to bases abandoned only weeks ago.
  • With the caliphate destroyed-and ISIS’s allure with it-the US military mission in Syria is complete. Staying has more to do with countering Assad, which actually harms the goal of defeating ISIS’s remnants and radical Sunni Islamists.
  • US withdrawal removes the risk of being dragged into a conflict over the Turkey-Syria border and reduces US exposure to the Middle East’s violent political problems.
  • The US should accept victory over ISIS, immediately withdraw from Syria, and keep the US safe through intelligence and raids.

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