- Successive US administrations have maintained a large troop presence in the Middle East for the past 25 years.

Despite the focus of former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump on the Indo-Pacific region, and their attempts to liquidate wars in the Middle East;

Washington has between 40,000 and 50,000 troops in the region today.

The largest proportion of the American forces are deployed in the Arab Gulf states and its waters, and their number is estimated at about 35,000 soldiers, in addition to about 7,000 soldiers who are distributed in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

With renewed calls to reduce the US military presence in the Middle East following the Russian attack on Ukraine, which came at a time when Washington's dependence on Gulf oil and gas is declining, and the threat of what the United States calls "terrorist groups" has decreased;

Renewed demands to focus on the risks posed by the Russian and Chinese threats.

Hence, the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) in Washington issued a few days ago a detailed report in 97 pages on alternatives to the US military deployment in the region, laying out several future scenarios that might push decision-makers in Washington to recalculate, and at the same time the report warned of the risks of an uncalculated reduction. In the numbers, armament and capabilities of these forces.

Controversy renewed over the feasibility of its survival

American experts are divided about the future deployment of their country’s forces in the Middle East, and proponents of a significant reduction argue that it is necessary due to increased competition with China in the Indo-Pacific region, and the Russian challenge in Europe, in addition to the decline of the United States’ dependence on Gulf oil and gas, and a reduced threat “Terrorist groups” such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.

However, others assert that the United States needs to maintain a strong presence in the Middle East to deter and respond to a complex mix of "active adversaries" in the region, from China and Russia to Iran and "terrorist groups".

At the same time, the report argues that the global and regional interests of the United States will evolve and change as adversaries also develop their strategies toward the Middle East.

An American strategic report says that the withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer reduced the deterrence of China and Russia (French)

Risks of reducing numbers

The report focused on the fact that there are serious risks that will result from a significant reduction in the US military presence in the Middle East in the near term, which may reduce Washington's influence, benefit competitors, and weaken the "deterring enemies" strategy.

The troop reduction has deterred China from expanding its presence in the Middle East, and deterred Russia, which has a growing presence and capabilities in the region, and Iranian influence continues in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.

It is likely that Washington's military withdrawal from the Middle East will increase competition between Iran and countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, which may raise the possibility of nuclear proliferation.

Reducing the US presence would also weaken Washington's ability to protect the points of free flow of oil and gas to global markets.

Although the United States is largely energy independent, its allies and partners can be severely affected by the fuel and supply chain crises that depend on oil and natural gas imports from the Gulf, including Japan, India, South Korea and some European Union countries.

It is unlikely that US allies and partners will fill this void, at least for the foreseeable future, and the reduction of US forces leads to the risk of a resurgence of "terrorism", which is worrisome in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the continuing instability in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya .

Alternatives to the US military presence in the region

The strategic report presents 3 alternatives for the future of the American presence in the Middle East:

  • Minimum alternative: It includes the withdrawal of almost all US forces from the Middle East, with the exception of a small force of less than 5,000 soldiers to deal with any threats that may result in a future threat to US interests.

  • The alternative to limited participation: It involves a US military presence estimated at 20,000 to 30,000 military personnel, with the aim of dealing with a set of US interests related to monitoring and confronting rival countries in the region, such as China, Russia and Iran.

  • The alternative to strong engagement: It includes a US presence of between 40,000 and 50,000 military personnel to deter Iran and "terrorist threats" and respond to them, monitor and confront Russian and Chinese activity, and ensure freedom of navigation.

After weighing the benefits and risks of these options, the report arrives at a key conclusion: Washington's interests in the Middle East are not as important as they were a decade ago, but it still has many core interests.

Changing risks and threats impose on the United States a new strategy in the Middle East (Reuters)

Scenarios and missions

The report touched upon 4 scenarios that might push Washington to increase its military presence in the region:

  • Conflict with Iran in the Gulf.

  • The return of "Salafi-jihadi" activity.

  • A proxy conflict with Russia in the Arab Mashreq.

  • The re-emergence of "terrorist groups" from Afghanistan.

The report also included a review of Washington's interests in the region, and the report called on the US military to focus on 4 tasks:

  • Monitor and confront Chinese and Russian activity.

  • Helping partners respond to and deter what he described as “Iranian aggression.”

  • Disrupt and weaken what it describes as "terrorist organizations" that threaten Washington's interests.

  • Protecting freedom of navigation and access to oil.

Medium presence with technical support

The report concludes that the United States must maintain a medium-sized presence, but it is tailored to the conditions and crises of the region, where the total forces range between 20 and 30 thousand soldiers.

The report called for maintaining the approximately 2,500 US forces in Iraq, who are mainly involved in providing air support, training, advice and assistance to the Iraqi forces.

The report also indicated the need to maintain the limited US military presence in Syria to counter the growing Iranian influence in the region, and to maintain the balance of regional powers.

The report advised the US administration to continue to strengthen its cyber capabilities (technical and electronic) that are integrated with partners and allies, especially with China and Russia possessing large cyber and counter space capabilities that can be used in the Middle East against the United States and its partners.

Iran has also doubled its offensive cyber capabilities, and possesses some counter-space capabilities, led by the Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Finally, the report notes that - in the long run - the US position on the deployment of its forces in the Middle East should not be static;

Various developments, such as a nuclear agreement with Iran, China's failure to seek military influence in the region, or the continued weakening of "terrorist groups" may push the United States to adopt a strategy of reducing its forces in the Middle East.