Pictured: President Donald Trump and Melania Trump speak with US military officers during a visit to Al-Asad Airbase in Iraq, on December 26, 2018. (Image source: The White House)
In April 2018, we warned that President Trump's decision to withdraw US forces from Syria would be a repetition of President Obama's worst mistake, the precipitate withdrawal from Iraq that facilitated the capture of Mosul by the Islamic State (ISIS).
We perceived that the immediate consequence of abandoning Syria would be a Turkish-led campaign to annihilate America's Syrian Kurdish allies, who heroically bore the brunt of defeating the ISIS in Syria and capturing its capital, Raqqa.
The conclusion drawn was that the Syrian Kurds would have no choice but to appeal to Iran for help. For it was only Iran's foreign ministry spokesman who had protested vehemently against the Turkish-facilitated capture of Afrin, a Kurdish town in northwest Syria, in March by an Islamist militia. In the meantime, Turkey has sent many thousands of Kurds fleeing, who have been replaced with "displaced Syrian Arabs from East Ghouta." The Islamist militia has subjected Christians to Sharia-style dhimmitude and forced Yazidis to convert to Islam on pain of death. Amnesty International has also reported on rampant offences against property and individuals; it mentions the thousands of refugees who have fled from Afrin.
In these recent December days, the scenario then foreseen has been playing itself out rapidly. On December 14, in a telephone conversation with Turkey's President Erdogan, President Trump not merely made a final decision to remove US forces from Syria but invited Erdogan to replace them with Turkish forces. The invitation has terrified not just the Syrian Kurds but also other militias in the Syrian Democratic Forces that fight alongside them against ISIS. An example is the Syriac Military Council, a Christian militia that has issued its own appeal to Trump to reconsider:
"The outcome of the invasion of Afrin makes visible what will happen to us. Churches will be destroyed. Christians and Yazidis, designated 'infidels' by Turkey's mercenaries, will be killed and massacred ... Women of all ethnicities, now free, will be raped, enslaved and veiled."
Trump overruled the objections of all his advisors, generals and supporters in Congress, assuring them that Erdogan had promised to deal with any remnants of ISIS in the area. Apparently, Trump is the only person among them all who ignored -- or maybe does not even understand -- that Erdogan had eagerly accepted Trump's invitation not on account of ISIS but in order to inflict his Afrin operation upon the entire population of America's loyal allies in Syria.
The prospect of such a US withdrawal from Syria -- and such a betrayal -- has even provoked articles with almost the same title as ours, such as Mark A. Thiessen in the Washington Post and Boston Herald on December 23: "Trump repeating Obama's mistake in the Middle East." Search for those words on internet and you will now find others coming to the same conclusion.
Trump's Night Flight
Events rolled on with Trump's unannounced arrival at a US base in Iraq on December 26. Trump declined to meet first in Baghdad with Adil Abdul Mahdi, the new Prime Minister of Iraq, but invited Mahdi to join him at the base. Apparently, Trump did not realize that he had humiliated Abdul Mahdi, as if the latter were a lackey at his beck and call.
There were furious protests in the Iraqi Council of Representatives (the parliament), both from the Iran-friendly Bina Bloc – with calls for the expulsion of US forces -- and from the more independent-minded Islah Bloc. The two blocs command respectively 73 and 126 seats in the 329-seat Council, thus a decisive majority. They had come together to ratify the appointment of Abdul Mahdi in October. The parliamentary leader of Islah, Sabbah al-Saadi, called for an emergency session of the Council "to discuss this blatant violation of Iraq's sovereignty and to stop these aggressive actions by Trump who should know his limits: the US occupation of Iraq is over."
Oblivious, possibly, that he was far from welcome in Iraq, Trump told US military personnel that -- as he was planning to keep them in Iraq – there was no problem in abandoning Syria:
"If we see something happening with ISIS [in Syria] that we don't like, we can hit them so fast and so hard they really won't know what the hell happened. We've knocked them silly."
Strategic wisdom would dictate the opposite. In December 2017, the then Iraqi government led by Haider al-Abadi declared ISIS defeated in Iraq. The remaining pockets of ISIS fighters are not seen by Iraqis as a serious threat. They are smaller than in Syria, while Iraq's army is now battle-hardened and will not repeat its disgraceful flight from Mosul upon the arrival of ISIS fighters in June 2014. Also, although the mainly Shiite militias that fought fiercely alongside the army have now been largely disbanded, they could be remobilized at any time. In eastern Syria, by contrast, the local Kurdish and Arab population begged the Americans to stay and help them defend themselves. The remnants of ISIS are substantial. The area also contains most of Syria's oilfields, the only major source of income left undamaged by the civil war, so a presence there would give the US a powerful card to play in determining the country's post-war future.
It would be strategic wisdom, therefore, to maintain the small US presence in Syria (about 2,000 personnel) while reducing the US profile in Iraq in order to forestall a looming demand by the Iraqi parliament for a total US withdrawal. Now it is probably too late because the Syrian Kurds have decided to abandon the US before the US abandons them. It seems that US forces will leave Syria not on American and Turkish terms but on Russian and Iranian terms.
The Manbij Coup
For months, Turkey has been planning to repeat its Afrin operation in Manbij, a Kurdish town further east, where Erdogan was deterred only by the US and French forces stationed inside the town. In recent weeks, thousands of Turkish-backed Islamists gathered for this purpose. Two days after Trump's confident address to US forces in Iraq, the Kurds of Manbij invited the Syrian army to deploy west and north of the town in a protective shield on December 28.
The move was immediately applauded by Russia, whose air force is of course stationed in Syria and which has missile-bearing ships in and near its Syrian naval base. Indeed, some reports claim that Russian as well as Syrian troops are now stationed outside Manbij. Apprehensive of war with Russia, Erdogan limply expressed acquiescence: "We are against the partitioning of Syria. Our goal is terrorist groups leaving there. If the groups leave, then there is no job left for us." That is, he decided not to pick a quarrel with Russia over the matter. Iran has also officially welcomed this development. Turkey's high hopes of obliterating the Kurds, described in frightening detail by our colleague Burak Bekdil on December 26, were dashed by the Kurdish reaction to Trump's plans two days later.
After high-level Russian and Turkish officials met in Moscow on December 29, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu stated that both sides would cooperate in defending Syria's "territorial integrity and political unity from all efforts to harm them." This sounds like an admission of acceptance of the Russian-backed Syrian coup in Manbij. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov vaguely spoke of a "very useful meeting" and added:
"Following the agreements, which were reached by our presidents, we discussed further steps to implement those tasks, which were outlined in the Astana format, primarily in the context of fighting terrorism, resolving humanitarian issues and creating conditions for refugees' return."
On December 29, a Syrian army spokesman revealed that substantial forces were on their way to Manbij: "The 4th Armored Division will join the 1st Armored Division, Republican Guard, and some units of the Tiger Forces at the western and northwestern outskirts of Manbij." Also: "A source in the area said that the Syrian Arab Army has not received orders to enter Manbij, as there are still U.S. Coalition troops inside the city."
The Syrian Kurds, for their part, intend to repeat the remedy throughout Eastern Syria in order to frustrate Erdogan's plan to devastate the entire Kurdish population on the Syrian side of the border between the two countries. They have indicated that the next place will be Raqqa itself, which is sufficiently far from the border and close to Syrian army positions to prevent Turkey from hindering a handover to the Assad regime.
Notably, throughout most of the civil war, the Syrian Kurds and the Assad regime have avoided mutual hostilities. Both were busy fighting distinct enemies. So there are no accounts for Assad to settle with the Kurds; he will be content with their obedience to his regime. The Kurds hoped for some kind of autonomy to emerge from the war, but for now are happy merely to save their lives after being cast aside by the US.
When one speaks of "the Syrian army," one implies Iran. The Syrian army was degraded by defeats and desertions during the civil war and faced dissolution until Iran mobilized militias from a range of countries with Shiite populations. It was these militias, accompanied by devastating Russian bombing from the air, that regained so much land for the Assad regime. On August 26 this year, a high-level Iranian military delegation arrived in Damascus and pledged to assist in rebuilding the Syrian army itself. So we are indeed seeing the Syrian Kurds being left by the US to probable annihilation by Turkey, but rescued by Iran.
US Foothold in Iraq Under Threat
Back in Iraq, President Trump may not have internalized the recent reports from Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. McGurk was appointed by President Obama on October 23, 2015 and resigned on December 22, 2018 -- like Defense Secretary Mattis the day before -- over Trump's insistence on leaving eastern Syria and handing it over to Erdogan.
The most important thing to notice about today's Iraq is to acknowledge that President George W. Bush's decision to invade the country has brought about one significant, durable and welcome change: the country has become a parliamentary republic with a nominal president. Despite the horrific amounts of blood that were shed in the fighting between competing factions after the invasion, the series of referenda and elections initiated by the Bush administration has led to a situation in which all factions accept that the country has to be ruled -- however inefficiently -- by decisions made in the Council of Representatives. From time to time, some faction appeals to the Constitutional Court, but the court's decisions are also respected. This situation is currently unique in the Arab world.
After the most recent parliamentary elections in May 2018, the two Iran-friendly Shiite lists, State of Law (Dawat al-Qanun, 25 seats) and Conquest (Fath, 47 seats), formed the Bina Bloc in the Council of Representatives. In August, the other three mainly Shiite lists formed the Islah Bloc along with the Sunni National Coalition (al-Wataniyya, 21 seats): Marching Toward Reforms (al-Sairun, 54 seats), Victory of Iraq (Nasr al-Iraq, 42 seats) and the National Wisdom Movement (Tayar al-Hikma al-Watani, 19 seats). Among other groups, there are the Sunni Uniters for Reform (Muttahidun, 14 seats) and the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP (25 seats) and the PUK (18 seats), besides almost thirty smaller factions (with one to six seats each) and two independents.
On what has happened since, there is an instructive article by Hassan Ahmadian: "How Iran won a face-off with the US in Iraq." To put it briefly, McGurk attempted for months, via the factions that formed the Islah Bloc, to ensure the reappointment of Haider al-Abadi, the leader of Victory of Iraq, who had led the fight against ISIS since 2014 and was continuing as acting prime minister. This attempt was basically doomed already in August, when al-Abadi complied with Trump's decision to renew sanctions on Iran. Other factions associated with him in Islah, as well as some members of his own faction, disagreed: they were indeed opposed to Iranian attempts to dominate Iraq, but such hostility against Iran went too far.
This and other factors led attention to shift to Abdul Mahdi, whose roots lie in the National Wisdom Movement but who currently sits as an independent. Besides having held various senior ministerial positions in the past, he happened to have published on August 19 an article opposed to adopting the US sanctions on a Persian website, Diplomasi-ye Irani ("Iranian Diplomacy"), entitled "Let us not become a tool for the boycott policy of others". At the beginning of October, the Islah and Bina blocs concurred on appointing Barhim Salih (as usual, by convention, a Kurd) as President of Iraq, who immediately named their joint candidate Abdul Mahdi as the new prime minister. Abdul Mahdi's appointment was ratified on October 26 when the Council of Representatives approved enough ministers to form a government, although the most recent ministers were approved only on December 24 and the posts of defense minister and interior minister are still unfilled.
Mohammed al-Halbousi (by convention, a Sunni), who was favored by Bina, had already been chosen as Speaker of the Council on September 15. He belongs to the Anbar Is Our Identity faction (six seats), an offshoot of Muttahidun that ran on its own in Anbar governorate, but identifies with Bina.
As Ahmadian puts it:
"The US failed to place its desired candidates in the important positions of prime minister, president and speaker of the parliament. Instead, Iran's Iraqi allies got their way. All three positions were filled with new faces who would not allow Iraq to turn its back to Iran."
"Iran's recent victory against the US and Saudi Arabia in the Iraqi political landscape is first and foremost a result of the trust it has built in the country over decades. The US is not a trusted actor in Iraq due to its inconsistent policies... Most Iraqis, however, view Iran as a consistent force. They may not support all of Tehran's policies, but they all trust its consistency. It took Tehran decades to build this trust, just as it took the US decades to lose it."
This was the situation in which Trump appeared at the US base in Iraq on December 26. Trump was doubtless informed about events in Iraq on a running basis by McGurk over recent months, but his statements at the US base were as nonchalant about the facts in Iraq as about the situation in Syria. What he does not imagine at all is that the day may be close when the Iraqi parliament votes by a large majority to ask him to remove US forces from the country -- and he will have to comply.
Consequences for US Policy Toward Iran
The disappearance of a US presence in both Syria and Iraq will, in its turn, provide a great setback to US policy toward Iran. We recently pointed out that the situation in Iran is similar to that in the last months of the East German regime in 1989: there is widespread disillusionment about the very character of the regime, over and above the misery caused to diverse components of the population by specific policies. Nevertheless, the East German regime suddenly fell not just because its fall was latent, but as a result of a few unexpected and unforeseen events which triggered that latency. We suggested that likewise in Iran, "a change may come in weeks, months or years, depending on chance events and particularly on whether the local authorities and their security forces, at least in some areas, get tired of killing people."
The consequences of these December days will delay regime change in Iran. A constant complaint there, as our article noted, is that the regime is wasting money on futile foreign adventures instead of relieving the poverty of its own citizens. If a perception arises in Iran that the regime can expel the US from Iraq as well as Syria, while expanding its influence to dominate Syria from end to end, some Iranians will give the regime another chance and others will be significantly more discouraged from challenging its power. Thus a single obstinate insistence to prefer a personal instinct to all better-informed advice may bring US policy tumbling down throughout the Middle East.
Malcolm Lowe is a Welsh scholar specialized in Greek Philosophy, the New Testament and Christian-Jewish Relations.