Confusion and mixed signals have characterized the past couple of days when it comes to the escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The New York Times reported late Monday that the White House had reviewed updated military plans, prepared by Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, to deploy up to 120,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East if Iran were to attack U.S. forces or resume work on nuclear weapons. In this case, “the White House” seems to mean national security adviser John Bolton, who ordered the update and has been spearheading the recent U.S. pressure campaign against Iran (and several other countries). The Times noted that it was “unclear whether the president has been briefed on the number of troops or other details.”
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump dismissed the report as “fake news,” saying no plans were in the works to send troops but that if conflict did break out, “we’d send a hell of a lot more” than 120,000. Trump has reportedly questioned his adviser’s bellicose approach to the crisis in Venezuela, and it seems like there’s daylight between them on Iran as well. Trump still seems to be holding out hopes that the pressure campaign will lead to direct talks with the leaders of Iran, as it did with Kim Jong-un of North Korea, while Bolton views such negotiations as a waste of time and has long sought regime change.
Whatever Trump’s intentions are, tensions are continuing to build. The U.S. has also pointed the finger at Iran or its proxies for using explosives to damage four ships off the coast of the United Arab Emirates last weekend—though Iran has denied responsibility, and little information about the attacks has been provided. In a more straightforward case, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for drone strikes on Saudi oil facilities on Tuesday.
The U.S. has now ordered all nonessential diplomatic personnel out of Iraq, citing threats from Iranian-backed militias in the area. This threat was also reportedly what led the U.S. to move a carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf region earlier this month.
But here, too, there are mixed signals. British Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, the deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve—the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS—said on Tuesday that there’s been no increase in the dangers posed by Iranian-backed militias. “There are a range of threats to American and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria,” Ghika said. “We monitor them all. Iranian-backed forces is clearly one of them, and I am not going to go into the detail of it, but there are a substantial number of militia groups in Iraq and Syria, and we don’t see an increased threat from many of them at this stage,” he said in a briefing to Pentagon reporters from Baghdad. (If you’re confused about why a British general is the one briefing Pentagon reporters about this, keep in mind that it’s been nearly a year since a U.S. Defense Department spokesperson has given a televised briefing.) A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command subsequently rebuked Ghika, saying, “Recent comments from OIR’s Deputy Commander run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region.”
That these remarks came from the deputy commander of the anti-ISIS mission is also a reminder that even as the U.S. appears to be escalating toward a new conflict, its previous conflicts are not exactly resolved.
While ISIS, also known by its Arabic nickname Daesh, is no longer in control of any physical territory—and Trump has, as a result, been anxious to withdraw U.S. troops— it is still active. Ghika told reporters:
Daesh foresaw the fall of its physical caliphate and has been reorganizing itself into a network of cells, intent on striking key leaders, village elders and military personnel to undermine the security and stability in Iraq and Syria. Daesh fighters are still ambushing security patrols, detonating IEDs and conducting kidnappings. Despite its territorial setbacks, Daesh is still having successes. And its ideology still inspires people around the world: we saw this on Easter Sunday with the devastating attacks in Sri Lanka. Last month, Daesh’s leader, Baghdadi, appeared online for the first time in over five years, conceding defeat in Baghuz but rousing Daesh supporters to continue their fight.
Experts estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 ISIS fighters are still in Iraq, and they continue to carry out ambushes and extort civilians. On Tuesday, to take one example, Kurdish media reported that an ISIS cell had set fire to the crops of farmers near the town of Makhmour who had refused to pay “taxes” to the group. The continued danger posed by ISIS is inconvenient for Iran hawks in Washington, as the Shiite militias that the U.S. is warning about have also been fighting against the group. It also undercuts the Trump narrative of total victory: The president has lately said that U.S. troops are remaining in the region not to fight terrorism but to “keep an eye” on Iran.
Violence continues in Syria as well. Syrian government and Russian warplanes have recently ramped up their campaign of airstrikes against the rebel-held province of Idlib, sending thousands of residents fleeing. Three hospitals were bombed last Saturday. Idlib is one of the last regions in rebel hands—it’s largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a hard-line group that was affiliated with al-Qaida until recently—and President Bashar al-Assad is desperate to finish the job. But an all-out assault on the densely populated region, where displaced civilians from other regions have fled, could be a bloodbath. Trump, to his credit, has urged Assad and the Russians to exercise caution in Idlib in the past and taken credit for forestalling a massacre. But as Josh Rogin of the Washington Post notes, this time around, Trump’s attention is elsewhere.
It’s fair to debate whether the U.S. should continue to fight the remnants of ISIS indefinitely, or what role it can or should play in resolving the larger conflict in Syria. But it’s noteworthy that a president who spent much of the past few months fighting with his advisers over his desire to remove U.S. troops in the Middle East now appears to be letting those advisers create a situation where even more troops would be sent into a much larger and more dangerous conflict. And they’re doing it before the last conflict is even over.