US must plot new course as big changes come to Iraq
By Paul Davis 5 hours ago
Recent reports indicating major changes in Iraq as well as potential changes in Iraq-US relations are worth an examination. Among these are reports of Iraqi Army units abandoning positions in Kirkuk and Diyala, reducing even further the level of security in the area. There has also been an unconfirmed report that the US is considering the removal of US forces from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and repositioning them in Erbil.
Complicating US relations in the region is the unconfirmed but widely accepted report that the Presidential Special Envoy Brett McGurk will soon be removed as his position is being eliminated. This all comes prior to the Iraqi general elections that will chose a new prime minister or retain incumbent Haider al-Abadi.
When the Iraqi Army seized control of Kirkuk, the resulting displacement of Kurdish Peshmerga caused an immediate increase in sectarian violence in a city that had seen relatively few security incidents since the end of the Saddam era and a relative period of prosperity.
The increase in violence, caused in large part by the Hashd al-Shaabi, the Iranian backed militias, increased the divide between Baghdad and Erbil as well as increasing the feeling of isolation and conflict between Shia and Sunni. This last is important as it was this rift that allowed for the rise of ISIS. It now appears ISIS is returning, likely adapting al-Qaeda tactics of small unit attacks and hit-and-run type warfare.
The return of ISIS in both Kirkuk and Diyala, even with this modification to its tactics, appears to be sufficient enough to cause the Iraqi Army to once again run. Reports are unclear as to the extent of the Iraqi Army withdrawal or if the Hashd al-Shaabi withdrew as well or is still holding the area. Reports have also indicated the Peshmerga may be returning even though Baghdad has insisted they not do so.
Put together, the question then becomes should ISIS once more be pushed out, would the Peshmerga give up positions so easily again when Baghdad insists on regaining control.
The report of US forces moving from Turkey to the Kurdistan Region is highly suspect and comes from a single source. It is important to note that this report comes as US-Turkish relations are at a breaking point and, if Turkish forces in Syria continue to push against Syrian Kurdish forces, there is a potential for some form of contact between the Turks and US forces who are supporting the Kurds.
Any number of actors in the region could be pushing this narrative to slow Turkish aggression with the threat of US counteractions that could cause a final break in US-Turkish relations. Russia must be a chief suspect in this since they would have much to gain by increasing the division not only between the US and Turkey, but the US and Iraq as well. Iraq itself may be a source as they continue to push an anti-American narrative under the direction of Iran, which puts Iran on the list of potential sources. Turkey may also be pushing this story as a means of continuing their anti-American bluster.
While the probability of the US abandoning its Turkish base is very low, moving US forces deeper into the Kurdish region is highly recommended.
Should Brett McGurk be removed, not only will this serve to remove a major problem between the KRG and the US State Department, it will further send a signal to the region that business as usual has ended.
How far US policy may shift in the region and if it will shift more toward Erbil cannot be known at this time. The current US administration is unpredictable but has been shown able to move quickly once a decision is made. This is in direct contradiction to past diplomatic changes which have been shown to move glacially.
The three-potential outcomes are: 1) nothing changes, 2) there is a move toward Erbil and away from Baghdad and other regional capitals, or 3) the US decides to abandon the region all together. We can only wait and see how this develops.
The final piece in all this is the upcoming elections in Iraq. While it is unlikely that this election can be free and fair by any stretch of the imagination, with so much of the population still displaced, there are few scenarios that work out well for either Kurds or Sunni Arabs.
Two candidates who are at the top of most lists to win are former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr organization. Both are anti-American and pro-Iran. Amiri may be slightly more able to deal with the Kurdish issues, but either one will retain the strong connection between Baghdad and Teheran which in the end does not bode well for the unified Iraq that the West desperately wants to see.
As shown, the region is in great flux and instability is the norm. What this is likely to lead to is a continued dangerous situation. There is no united army – in the past it was Sunni, Shia and Kurd, now it is Shia. Making matters worse is the power of the Shia militias which is giving rise to ISIS, even if it is ISIS 2.0. With the breakdown of US-Turkish relations and increasing Turkish militancy, the prospect of both a revanchist Turkey and an expanding Iran are evident and dangerous. The US and the West have lost leverage in the region and it will only get worse following the next election.
The US and the West must plot a new course in the region. First, they must come to understand the impact on the world of this rising tide of anti-Western activity. We could face a regional war that could kill millions while sucking in many countries. Turkey has a large army that is held back by lack of trained leaders, thanks to the recent purges by Erdogan. Syria possesses chemical weapons which it has shown no reluctance to use. Iran could easily restart its nuclear weapons program. Should this war become a threat it must be remembered Israel is a nuclear power.
This of course is a worst case scenario unlikely currently but moving in that direction. Is the movement unstoppable? No, but the West must take a more active role by indicating a sure and reliable consequence for actions.
It must be understood that action like a free and independent Kurdistan or the breakup of Syria are not the triggers, but the safety valves that may release the pressure. Once done, movement forward can begin.
Paul Davis is a retired US Army military intelligence and former Soviet analyst. He is a consultant to the American intelligence community specializing in the Middle East with a concentration on Kurdish affairs.
Currently he is the president of the consulting firm JANUS Think in Washington D.C.