Three U.S. service members were killed near the Syrian border in northeastern Jordan by a drone from an Iranian-aligned militia over the weekend. U.S. troops are in the area to support the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State while also monitoring Iranian activity along the land corridor between Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. As tensions escalate in the Middle East, the frequency of attacks on U.S. troops in the region by Iran-aligned militias places American soldiers at greater risk than they have faced in years. With over 100 attacks reported since the onset of the Gaza conflict, it is time to ask whether the risks of maintaining these outposts outweigh their remaining benefits.
After the recent tragedy, there have been new demands to confront Iran, aiming to restore deterrence and show strength. Washington may find itself drawn into an avoidable conflict against an opportunistic adversary whose violent tactics are all too easily applied when U.S. troops are deployed next door to Iran amid a welter of pro-Iranian militias largely unconstrained by Baghdad. Keeping troops deployed does not advance U.S. security—it puts it at greater risk.
In Washington, there has been a readiness to downplay the risks to U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Syria. This weekend’s attack on a base in Jordan used to support operations in Syria should be a wake-up call. True, most assaults are meant to stir the pot rather than kill Americans. But given the nature of the weapons, from mortars to drones of varying complexity, launched at U.S. forces and the uneven competence of those who fire them, these militias cannot be certain that their attacks will not inflict casualties that cross the threshold of escalation. These attacks have already left numerous American service members with traumatic brain injuries, claimed the life of a U.S. contractor, and left six other U.S. personnel deployed to Syria wounded in March of last year.
This fragile situation illustrates the broader problem of forward-deployed forces. The farther forward they are and the closer to an adversary’s territory they are based, the more exposed they are to attack. In some instances, of course, troops are deliberately exposed in this way and in relatively small numbers as tripwires. In Iraq, this is emphatically not their purpose; but our forward-deployed forces might nonetheless function as though they were a tripwire. This is a serious problem whether militia attacks against U.S. forces are directed by Tehran or not. If they are masterminded by Iran, there is the danger of miscalculation. And if they are not, then these militias are like tails wagging the dog, acting independently of Iran for their own local interests, while placing Tehran at the risk of escalation it does not seek.