Iran, Syria, Iraq. Contradictions and Paradoxes of American Politics

As the United States proclaims victory in the war against the Islamic State (IS), it finds itself locked into a contradiction between its desire to partially disengage from the Middle East and its escalation against Iran. This approach can only contribute to destabilizing the region, particularly Iraq and Syria.

February 12, 2019. — U.S. soldiers on an observation helicopter flight over Baghdad during the visit to Iraq of Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan.
Lisa Ferdinando/US Department of Defense

In the aftermath of the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the United States is caught in a paradox. While Washington no longer aspires to its former status as an ambitious superpower reshaping the Middle East in accordance with the neoconservative script, it continues to rely on the partners it backed in the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State to counter what it considers its primary enemy, Iran. This uneasy discordance between the residual influences of hawkish policies and a newly dominant isolationist approach is hindering U.S. partners in their negotiations across the political spectrum—especially in talks with political forces allied with Tehran—thereby generating political stalemates in Syria and Iraq. With its current approach, the Trump administration is failing to counter Iran while also keeping the U.S. militarily engaged in lingering conflicts alongside weak local partners.

Without a policy that encourages its local partners to engage in political processes with all local forces—including those allied with Iran—current U.S. military engagement in Syria and Iraq will fail to secure lasting influence and jeopardize prospects for stability.

The insoluble Kurdish issue in Syria

During the Trump presidency, America’s goal in Syria was reoriented from a narrow security orientation focused on defeating the Islamic State to containing Iran’s influence and forcing the Syrian regime into a political transition. Continued military support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) without a political strategy that allows the group to negotiate its status within Syria exposes the YPG to external threats and leaves the United States militarily engaged but without any stake in Syria’s political transition.

Since 2014, the United States provided weapons and training to the YPG, later rebranded the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the war against the Islamic State. Over four years of military partnership with the United States, the YPG has established a governance apparatus in Syria’s northeast. This “Self-Administration” controls more than 450 kilometers of territory adjacent to Turkey’s southern border with Syria. According to a YPG official, by November 2018 its staff included more than 140,000 civilian employees, 60,000 fighters and 30,000 police. The administration is now, according to UN sources, in charge of a territory five times the size of Lebanon.

But having established these facts on the ground, the Kurdish movement never managed to convert this external military support into strong political backing. The YPG’s ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a guerrilla movement in Turkey, provoked Ankara’s fears, leading them to veto the integration of the Self-Administration into the U.N.-led Geneva peace process, dissuade any political opening by capitals in the West with the YPG, and discourage potential brokers such as Russia and Iran from supporting an understanding between the Self-Administration and Damascus. As a result, the Self-Administration is cornered. It is excluded from the Geneva process and it has failed multiple times to reach a bilateral deal with Damascus.

The way Washington has addressed Ankara’s concerns has prolonged this vicious cycle. The continuous military support to the YPG/SDF after the defeat of the Islamic State convinced Turkey that the U.S. supports the creation of what Turkish security officials define “a PKK statelet” on its border with Syria. The more threats Turkey perceives, the more troops it deploys on its border with Syria. The more troops Turkey deploys, the more the U.S. is forced to protect the YPG/SDF-controlled areas from a potential Turkish attack. In November 2018, after a month of mobilisation of Turkish troops on Syria’s borders, coupled with small-scale cross-border shootings, the United States decided to deploy observation posts and joint patrols with the SDF. Such moves only confirmed Turkey’s suspicions that the United States is protecting the PKK’s military capacity building.

Turkey’s concerns

The current US attempts to mitigate the tensions existing between their local anti-ISIS partner and Turkey is repeating the same process: unable or unwilling to factor in the connections existing between the PKK and the YPG, the US approach reduces the current tension around the North East to a bilateral issue with the Administration in the North East, i.e. an issue of border. Just as it tried to diffuse tensions with observations posts and joint patrols, the US proposal of a “safe zone” was only the most recent move in an ongoing cycle, whereby short-term military fixes continue to leave the core political issue—the PKK/YPG connection—untouched, and make Turkey more determined than ever to take action.

While the U.S. presence is no doubt protecting the YPG in the short term, it is also antagonizing regional powers against its partner. Iran views U.S. military support as clearly aligning the Kurds with the U.S. against Tehran and its allies in the “Axis of Resistance”. Turkey sees it as a U.S.-backed plan to consolidate a PKK-run statelet. Damascus believes it part of a U.S.-Israeli plan to partition Syria. Moscow has already showed that it will give precedence to the concerns of all regional states over its ties with the YPG. Only a year ago (January 2018) due to these concerns, Russia gave the green light to the Turkish “Olive Branch” operation, which resulted in the Turkish army deploying in Afrin, a Kurdish-populated area in northeastern Syria.

The Self-Administration is increasingly trapped in a unilateral alignment with the U.S. that challenges, rather than facilitates, its attempts to define its status in Syria. The Self-Administration’s leaders are aware that any sustainable solution lies in a settlement with Damascus, and so that in relying solely on the U.S. military’s protection while failing to launch negotiations with Damascus, they are becoming massively exposed to Turkish military intervention. “We realise that we are alone. We told the U.S. that because of our alignment with them we now have the whole region against us, and without them we have no chance of surviving,” confesses one Self-Administration leader.

Government instability in Baghdad

> As in Syria, the Trump administration’s objective in Iraq has shifted from defeating ISIS to a marked anti-Iran posture, which has polarized Iraq’s political scene and paralyzes the Iraqi government.

This escalatory posture is challenging the Iraqi government’s attempts to remain neutral in the confrontation between Washington and Tehran and created a stalemate that helps Iran to broaden and consolidate alliances with local partners in Iraq while undermining its key partner, the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Since 2014, the United States has deployed 5,200 U.S. troops, supplied weapons, training, intelligence and advisers to Iraqi Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, as well as to the Iraqi government. In September 2018, as a new Iraqi government was in the making, U.S. pressure on its key partners—the Kurdish parties and Shiite moderate forces leading the government—to line up against Iran has undermined the leverage of both of these partners and of the United States itself in Iraqi politics. It has polarized an already fragmented political scene by creating two rival camps—one supported by Washington, and the other by Tehran. Such polarization has prevented the former from agreeing with the latter on ministerial candidates that could balance between the two sides, creating a stalemate which has yet to be resolved. The Adel Abdul Mahdi government that took office on October 2018, relies on a shaky parliamentary majority and remains incomplete, with key security portfolios (interior, defense and national security) yet to be appointed.

Washington’s aggressive posture against Tehran pressures the Iraqi government to make an overt choice between the U.S. and Iran’s camp. Since October, the Trump administration demanded Baghdad to implement the regime of sanctions against Tehran and cut payments for gas and electricity imports from Iran. Washington’s issuing first 45 and then two 90-day waivers allowe Baghdad to continue paying for gas and electricity imports but kept the prime minister in a fragile spot whereby he must continuously renegotiate the waiver’s renewal. The blacklisting of Iraq’s paramilitary groups due to their ties with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) which since April 8th is itself listed as a terror group risks strengthening the Washington and Iran long-standing tendency to compete by supporting irregular forces outside the purview of the government. This is likely to come at the expenses of the security sector reform program that attempted to reintegrate these forces under the legal umbrella of the state and define the country’s security architecture in the post-ISIS.

Tehran’s increased influence

Whether is not clear to what extent the threat a physical confrontation between the U.S. and Iran is real, Washington’s posture treats this threat is real and challenges Baghdad’s attempt to remain neutral in the confrontation. During his visit to Baghdad, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iraqi officials that any aggression against U.S. assets in Iraq will trigger a response on Iraqi soil. A few days later, the State Department evacuated part of its diplomatic personnel from Iraq. The Iraqi government overtly taking the U.S. camp against Iran would trigger a domestic reaction and invite Iraqi parliamentary groups to withdraw confidence or even resort to affiliated Iraqi militias to create security incidents. If, instead, it would take Iran’s camp against the U.S., Washington may sanction the government for violating the sanctions regime and withdraw its military and security assets that are much needed to prevent the resurgence of ISIS across the country.

Meanwhile, Iran’s influence in Iraq has thrived amidst the stalemated government. Tehran enjoys relations across the Iraqi political spectrum and engages even with parties and figures who have traditionally been U.S. allies. One of those who recently shifted allegiance to the Iranians said: “The Iranians reach out, commit and deliver. The U.S. does none of that”.

Because they enjoy relations with Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni factions, Iranian officials are in a position to facilitate deals among them and replace the government to engineer policy-making. For instance, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which has traditionally been closer to the U.S. than to Iran, is striking deals with Tehran’s closest partners, members of al-Fatah’s alliance. Unlike the government, members of this parliamentary bloc are able to control the deployment of paramilitary forces in disputed territories between the Kurdish region and Baghdad. In January, parliamentary political forces allied with Iran drafted a law aimed at challenging the legitimacy of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Throughout February, the bill gathered more support. Whether the parliament passes the bill or not, the initiative may end up gathering support even among Iraqi lawmakers who are friendly to the U.S., as it forces them to take a stand on protecting Iraqi sovereignty and foreign interference. The government, in turn, may not be able to oppose the implementation of the bill, fearing that it would antagonize the parliament and lose the majority that enables it to keep power and to govern.

In Iraq, the Iranians are doing what the United States attempted and failed to do: put pressure on their rivals through local partners. And increase their own leverage. An official of the Popular Mobilization Units, a paramilitary group with close ties to Tehran, said: “Wherever they [the Americans] escalate, we consolidate.”

Bring Politics Back In

In Syria as in Iraq, the gap between Washington’s aggressive posture against Iran and its disengagement from the Middle East leaves its allies vulnerable.

If the Trump administration’s objective is to counter Iran but it does not want to engage the U.S. in a full-scale war against Tehran, then it has to rely on a strategy of converting its military presence in post-ISIS contexts into political leverage. It can only achieve this through its local partners, and by allowing them to negotiate even with the Iran-allied forces dominating the post-ISIS landscapes in Iraq and Syria. Escalatory rhetoric against Iran with no political strategy for building concrete political leverage might prop up domestic support for the Trump administration, but will only waste U.S. resources while prolonging the crises in Syria and Iraq.

In Syria, the U.S. will have to find a formula that allows them to maintain their military support for the YPG without antagonizing regional actors against the group. They should instead opt for a strategy that allows the YPG to translate continued military support into leverage for negotiations with Damascus under a hybrid formula that would enable the state to return in domains such as education and administrative affairs while avoiding the return of the state security apparatus. A series of local power-sharing and joint-security arrangements, as well as an overall revenue-sharing deal, between the central government and the Self-Administration for now remains the best way to gradually reconnect the central state with the Self-Administration without forcing the latter into a surrender-type scenario. Such a settlement would by no means represent an endgame. But it would establish a long-lasting transition that would reverse the current decline toward the political isolation of the YPG. It would also place the YPG in a better position for a political process while allowing it to at least temporarily retain its military capacity.

Such an arrangement could also help address the concerns of Damascus and other regional powers. It would offer a compromise to the regime, which knows that it has no means of re-projecting its power and institutions in northeastern Syria, while mitigating the YPG’s unilateral alignment with the U.S. For its part, the Self-Administration could reconnect with the central government without losing control over its peripheries while de-escalating conflicts with all the actors that are concerned by its current U.S.-centered isolationism—specifically, Russia, Turkey, and Damascus.

Turkey’s security concerns would partly be addressed in this situation because it would rein in the YPG’s autonomy. The nightmare of a PKK statelet on its borders would be avoided, even if the issue of the YPG’s military capacities remains unresolved. Such a negotiated solution would resolve the U.S. dilemma, whereby it is stuck between its desire to use the Kurds’ presence on the ground to counter Iran and the need to repair relations with Turkey. It would mean fewer problems with Turkey and would mitigate the risk of Iran stepping into the northeast to benefit from a free-for-all that a US withdrawal—or the failure of the current U.S. diplomatic efforts—would inevitably create. Last but not least, such a formula would familiarize all parties with the only realistic option left to all anti-regime forces today: a significant devolution of power to insurgent-held territories.

In Iraq, the U.S. priority should be to help the government complete the formation of its cabinet and to enable it to govern. This would entail easing pressure on the Iraqi government to implement sanctions against Iran and encouraging—or at least not opposing—a rapprochement between rival political blocs in parliament.

A softer approach towards the implementation of sanctions would give more leeway for the Iraqi government to balance between Iran and the U.S. rather than cornering it on one side. Temporary waivers on the implementation of Iran’s sanctions will keep Baghdad in a fragile spot. The Trump administration may do better to agree with Baghdad on a roadmap for the implementation of sanctions that also takes into account Iraq’s economic and energy dependency on Iran and assesses the risks of political and military retaliation against the government. A consensus between rival political blocs in parliament would avoid obstructions on government formations and would help political factions agree on unassigned ministries by appointing moderate candidates who are able to engage with both Iranian and American officials and facilitate a solution to define the legal status of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

In the same way, the sanctions in Syria might exhaust the regime, but they also may encourage the resurgence of ISIS cells in newly liberated areas. The shortage of oil in the regime-held areas is feeding the build-up of smuggling networks from the SDF areas to the regime-controlled territories. A wave of ongoing popular protests in the countryside of Deir al Zor that ISIS’s remnants cells are partly instrumentalising to regroup a local insurgency against the SDF and reposition themselves in the region.

In Syria as in Iraq, Washington should reconcile its rhetoric with its foreign policy objectives and design a political approach that defines its role and relationship with local partners and which is in line with its partial divestment from the Middle East. A step in this direction consists in relying on local partners and allowing them to strike their own alliances, even with unfriendly forces, in order to defend their own interests in a transactional way.

It is time to consider an approach that could offer the Middle East more stability and Washington sustainable influence without the cost of the heavy military engagements that have provided very little return on their investment and which are now explicitly undesired by the current administration.