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The Perils of Adding US Forces in the Middle East

Last month, a Russian fighter jet had a near-miss with a manned American surveillance craft, while the United States has deployed advanced F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in a bid to deter Iran in the Strait of Hormuz — just two recent examples of the escalating tensions between the United States, Russia and Iran in the Middle East.

The United States must carefully consider its options before taking action that could prove disastrous. The current trajectory of adding more U.S. forces in the region courts catastrophe, but Washington can demonstrate prudence by altering this course and averting a potential disaster.

Those who advocate for continuing the buildup argue that the United States cannot afford to back down, as doing so would undermine its leadership, prestige and credibility. However, these nebulous concepts come at a tangible cost: American lives.

While in recent months one American has died in Syria, the number could be far worse. Local militias have engaged in drone and rocket attacks nearly 80 times since President Joe Biden assumed office. And leaked documents suggest Russia and Iran already view Syria as an avenue to indirectly target U.S. troops. Further escalations with either country risk endangering these American troops.

An anti-terrorism justification underpins both the political and legal basis for remaining in Syria, but this justification has become tenuous. With its land lost, its leadership decimated, and its standing diminished, ISIS is a shallow husk of an organization. It lacks any presence significant enough to justify any local U.S. troops, let alone the 900 soldiers that currently occupy eastern Syria.

Keeping U.S. troops in harm’s way allows adversaries to spread U.S. combat power thin at a comparatively cheap rate. It also strains American military capabilities by redirecting scarce air defenses to protect forces from rocket and drone attacks.

The United States cannot afford to pursue superpower ambitions without the means to achieve them. The 2022 National Defense Strategy acknowledges this limitation, but the necessary scaling down of objectives has not happened. Failing to deemphasize the U.S. role in Syria and the Middle East undermines other priorities. It unnecessarily dilutes U.S. military power and strains the already undermanned force.

To prevent any further disruption in the Strait of Hormuz, the United States must exercise caution to avoid a spiral of escalation similar to what occurred in 2019. This latest tit-for-tat cycle of tanker seizures has been going on since April, when the seizure and redirection of an Iranian oil tanker sparked Iran’s subsequent retaliation, and led to Washington’s F-35 deployment last month. But given the futility of previous shows of force to deter Iran, this is unlikely to produce results.

In April, Washington attempted to deter Iran, showcasing bunker buster bombs and a cruise-missile bearing attack submarine; this followed U.S. exercises in March that featured B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers capable of striking deep inside Iran. Iran’s seizure of a tanker in May and further harassment of shipping in June indicates that these moves had no effect. It is unlikely that the latest deployment will produce a different outcome.

Instead of continued brinkmanship with Iran and Russia that’s likely to produce American casualties, the United States can let diplomacy do what military means cannot. By pulling out of Syria, the United States adds a buffer to prevent giving Russia an easy target for escalation. Washington can incentivize Tehran with sanctions relief so that it suffers economically by disrupting shipping. Doing so in tandem with troop drawdowns removes the incentive to attack shipping and to cultivate proxy militias. Putting diplomacy first allows the United States to achieve more by doing less.

Adding more U.S. forces in the Middle East to counter Russia and Iran is a perilous path that should be avoided. Instead, the United States should prioritize prudence over ambition and pursue alternative strategies. By withdrawing from Syria, reassessing its approach, and prioritizing diplomacy, the United States can mitigate risks, protect its troops, and avoid overstepping strategic realities.

— Geoff LaMear is a fellow at Defense Priorities and an air defense officer in the U.S. Army. The author’s views are his own and do not reflect the positions of the Department of Defense or the Army.

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