The United States is in yet another dust-up with militias in Iraq and Syria, with U.S. aircraft striking facilities that the Pentagon says are associated with recent drone attacks against bases in Iraq that house U.S. military personnel. Such attacks, using drones and other means, have become frequent. The U.S. reprisals for such attacks thus risk also becoming a regular occurrence.
Most public discussion of this latest exchange has a narrow, tactical focus. There is hand-wringing, for example, over the drone capabilities of the militias — which is an understandable focus of the U.S. military commander for the region.
The exchange of attacks also is getting viewed as part of U.S.-Iranian bargaining over returning to compliance with the agreement that restricts Iran’s nuclear program. Maybe the Biden administration wanted to exude some toughness for this reason. And maybe a similar intent on the part of the Iranian regime has had something to do with attacks by the militias — although the habitual affixing of the label “Iranian-backed” on these groups obscures how the attacks may have at least as much to do with the motivations and objectives of the militias themselves as with any intentions of Tehran.
As long as U.S. troops remain in Iraq and Syria, the attacks will continue. The most recent U.S. airstrikes evidently did nothing to deter a rocket attack the next day against a U.S.-inhabited site in northeast Syria.
The narrow, tactical focus obscures the far more fundamental question of why the U.S. military personnel who are enduring the militia attacks are still deployed in that part of the Middle East, and whether whatever purpose their deployment serves outweighs the costs of their being targets for attacks by local armed groups. Cogently answering that question requires shedding some historical baggage.
Insofar as any U.S. military presence in the Middle East involves counterterrorism, the baggage that needs to be shed is the post-9/11 idea of “fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them at home.” At least since the eradication of the mini-state or “caliphate” that the group known as Islamic State or ISIS had established in western Iraq and eastern Syria, not fighting terrorists in the United States — where the principal terrorist threats are now home-grown — is not a matter of military operations in the Middle East. An international conference this week on countering ISIS recognized that if there is an ISIS surge anywhere today, it is in Africa.
Since long before 9/11, foreign troop deployments have been more of a stimulus to, and target for, terrorist attacks than a preventative or deterrent to such attacks. The United States has a history in the Middle East that has demonstrated this, including attacks on the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, and the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. Scholarly research has confirmed this pattern with other regions and other foreign militaries.
The pattern should not be surprising. The boots of a foreign military on one’s home turf can be one of the most offensive and enraging things for those who call the turf home. This is probably as true for many members of militias in Iraq and Syria as it is for anyone else.
With regard to other foreign powers being active in the Middle East, the baggage to be discarded is the Cold War habit of thinking of the Middle East as a playing field on which the United States and the USSR competed for influence. Today, Russian influence in the region does not come close to what the Soviets achieved except in Syria — where the small U.S. military presence in the northeast of the country does nothing to reduce the Russian presence and may even help provide a rationale for it. China’s efforts to build influence in the region are chiefly nonmilitary, in response to which any U.S. troop presence is useless.
As for powers within the region, Iran is of course the constantly-invoked bête noire, and it has often been invoked as a reason for having troops in Syria and Iraq. The Trump administration considered “keeping an eye on Iran” as sufficient reason to retain some troops in Syria, and Trump said his principal reason to keep troops in Iraq was to “watch Iran.” Those who thought Trump was nonetheless moving too fast to draw down the U.S. troop presence in these countries and Afghanistan said what they most feared were Iranian attacks.
Iran is a mid-level regional power whose ability to harm U.S. interests is quite limited, especially through any means that involves projecting power at a distance. If Iran appears more ominous than this in many eyes, it is not only because of another piece of baggage, dating back to the early days of the Islamic Republic, that turned it into a villain for Americans but also because of the maximum demonization of Iran that suits the objectives of certain other Middle Eastern states that want to blame it for all the ills of the region.
Look carefully at how Iran today could actually harm U.S. interests if it chooses to do so, and harm to U.S. military personnel in countries close to Iran is mostly what is involved. Analysis of the ways in which Iran realistically could be expected to strike back for any perceived offenses by the United States almost always focuses on the vulnerability of U.S. troops to the east of Iran in Afghanistan (from which most of the remaining U.S. troops will soon be withdrawn) and to the west of Iran in Iraq, and perhaps also U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf.
In short, the same forces that supposedly are in the area to counter feared attacks from Iran (or its purported proxies) are themselves the likely targets of any such attacks — which they would not be if they were brought home. The circularity of the rationale for keeping troops in that area should be obvious. And the most recent attacks on the troops in Iraq and Syria ought to be a remainder of that circularity.
Moreover, keeping troops in Iraq, with all the attendant vulnerabilities, does nothing to diminish Iranian influence there. It might even help to sustain support for an Iranian role in Iraq, given the desire of nationalist-minded Iraqis to balance their relations with both outside powers and not to throw their lot in completely with either one of them.
It is worth noting that the most recent U.S. airstrikes were denounced not only unsurprisingly by the Syrian regime but also by the same Iraqi regime that the United States supposedly is there to help. The Iraqi cabinet described the strikes as a “flagrant violation” of international law and reaffirmed the need to complete logistical details for removing all U.S. combat forces from Iraq. A spokesman for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said that Iraq did not want to become an “arena for settling accounts.”
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
U.S. Soldiers, with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, conduct area reconnaissance in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility, Feb. 18, 2021. The soldiers are in Syria to support the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) mission. CJTF remains committed to working by, with, and through our partners to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jensen Guillory)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, President Vladimir Putin has reportedly had his suggestions of ceasefire rejected by Washington.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Russia had approached the United States through intermediaries in late 2023 and early 2024 to propose freezing the conflict along the current lines. Washington reportedly turned down the suggestion, saying that they were not willing to engage in talks if Ukraine was not a participant.
“Putin was proposing to freeze the conflict at the current lines and was unwilling to cede any of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, but the signal offered what some in the Kremlin saw as the best path towards a peace of some kind,” according to Reuters, which cites three anonymous Russian sources.
The plan, one of the sources told Reuters, was for national security adviser Jake Sullivan to meet with the Russian counterpart to hash out the details. But after meeting with other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, “Sullivan told Ushakov that Washington was willing to talk about other aspects of the relationship but would not speak about a ceasefire without Ukraine, said one of the Russian sources,” according to Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin and has maintained that he will never accept Russia controlling any part of Ukraine.
"Everything fell apart with the Americans," one of the sources told Reuters, saying that Washington did not want to pressure Kyiv into reaching an agreement. The sources also added that given the U.S. reaction to a potential ceasefire, Moscow saw little reason to reach out again.
Both Washington and Moscow have denied the reporting.
The Kremlin “never made any kind of proposal to us nor have we seen any signs that Putin is sincerely interested in ending the war,” an unnamed U.S. official told Politico’s NatSec daily on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the report that Russia had made such an offer was “not true.”
Despite Washington’s insistence, this is the latest piece of evidence that Putin may have pursued a ceasefire in recent months. The New York Times reported late in 2023 that the Russian president had quietly been sending signals to the West that he was prepared to freeze the conflict.
“The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia,” the Times reported. “Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said.” The report also revealed that Putin had been interested in a potential ceasefire as far back as the fall of 2022, following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
As journalist Leonid Ragozin explained in al-Jazeera earlier this week, this may be an effort to pressure the West to negotiate on Putin’s terms.
“What Putin is trying to achieve is making the West face its moral dilemma which boils down to the cost and benefit of resisting his aggression,” Ragozin writes. “The continued support for Ukraine’s military effort will cost thousands of lives and devastate Ukraine even further, while success is hardly guaranteed.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The prospects for the next tranche of U.S. aid for Ukraine saw the first glimmer of optimism in months, but the chances that it becomes law remain murky. After a tumultuous negotiation, the Senate passed the $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes approximately $60 billion for Kyiv. The legislation next goes to the House of Representatives, which has been more skeptical of sending aid, and where leadership so far appears unwilling to bring the bill to the floor. Supporters believe that if the House voted on the package, it would pass overwhelmingly, and some have floated pursuing legislative maneuvers that would allow them to supersede leadership and bring the legislation to a vote.
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine currently detained in Russia, on Monday, according toCNN. Blinken provided few details on his conversation with Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. When asked about a possible prisoner exchange involving Whelan or detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Kremlin said that such matters could only be resolved, “in silence.”
— French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a statement that he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on Friday. Macron did not specify what exactly the agreement will look like, but he said earlier this year that he was expecting to model an agreement after the 10-year deal that the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed earlier this year.
— The Netherlands will join a coalition of countries that is providing Ukraine with advanced drones, according toReuters.
“Ukraine intends to manufacture thousands of long-range drones capable of deep strikes into Russia in 2024 and already has up to 10 companies working on production, Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Reuters interview on Monday.”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reiterated the importance of Congress passing the supplemental, stressing that it was in the national security interest of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.
“A lot of that money is spent here, helps develop the manufacturing base here in the United States. And so we will continue to push for the passage of the supplemental bill, and ultimately we think – as the President said, the world is watching,” Miller said. “And certainly I’m sure that when we are in Munich we will hear directly from foreign leaders that they are watching very much what Congress does. We know the Ukrainian people are watching. And as the President said, history is watching as well.”