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What are US troops doing in the Middle East and where are they?

January 31, 2024 at 10:48 am

US Marines of the 782 company from Fort Bragg, South Carolina, walk 21 August 1990 towards their barracks upon landing at Saudi Dhahran air base [Gerard Fouet/AFP via Getty Images]

Three US soldiers were killed and dozens more were wounded on Sunday when a drone hit a military outpost in Jordan known as Tower 22. The outpost is just one of many bases that the US maintains in the Middle East.

What are US troops doing in the Middle East, though? And where are they based? Here is what we know about the US military presence in the region.

The US has had bases around the Middle East for decades. At its peak, there were more than 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan in 2011 and over 160,000 personnel in Iraq in 2007.

While the number is far lower since the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, there are still about 30,000 US troops scattered across the region. In addition, since the Israeli military offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza began in October, the US has temporarily deployed thousands of additional troops across the region, including some on warships.

The largest US base in the Middle East is located in Qatar; Al-Udeid Air Base was built in 1996. Other countries where the US has a presence include Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

America keeps roughly 900 troops in Syria, in small bases like Al-Omar Oil Field and Al-Shaddadi, mostly in the north east of the country. There is a small outpost near the Syrian border with Iraq and Jordan, known as Al-Tanf garrison.

There are 2,500 US military personnel in Iraq, spread around facilities like Union III and Ain Al-Asad Air Base, although talks are ongoing about the future of those troops.

The US has troops in the Middle East for different reasons and, with the exception of Syria, they are there with the permission of each country’s government. In some countries like Iraq and Syria, the troops are there to fight against Islamic State/Daesh and are also advising the local armed forces. However, they have come under attack from Iran-backed forces over the past few years and have taken military action against them.

Jordan, a key US ally in the region, has hundreds of US trainers who hold extensive exercises throughout the year. In other cases, such as Qatar and the UAE, US troops are present to reassure allies, carry out training and be used as needed in operations in the region.

While Washington’s allies sometimes send their troops to train or work with US troops, there are no foreign military bases inside the US.

Tower 22, where Sunday’s drone attack occurred, killing three Army Reserve soldiers, holds a strategically-important location in the Hashemite Kingdom at its most north-eastern point where the country’s border meets that of Syria and Iraq.

Specifically, Tower 22 is near Al-Tanf garrison, which is located across the border in Syria, and which houses a small number of US troops. Tanf had been key in the fight against Daesh and has assumed a role as part of a US strategy to contain Iran’s military build-up in eastern Syria.

US bases are well-guarded facilities, with air defence systems to protect against missiles or drones. Facilities in countries like Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait are not usually attacked. However, US troops in Iraq and Syria have come under frequent attack in recent years. Since 7 October, US troops have been attacked more than 160 times by Iran-backed militias, injuring about 80 troops, even prior to Sunday’s attack on Tower 22, which injured around 40 more.

READ: US launches probe into attack on military base in Jordan

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.