Iraq — US-Iranian rivalry and Turkish «blitzkrieg»

The difficult military-political and socio-economic situation in Iraq is exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices. The accelerated process of disintegration of Iraq indicates the insolvency of state institutions in the Arab country, as they are unable to resolve internal political (including interfaith and interethnic) conflicts. Especially in a situation where many of these conflicts involve neighboring countries — Iran and Turkey. While the United States intends to reduce its military presence in Iraq in the coming months due to significant progress in eliminating the threat posed by the terrorist group ISIS.

Status quo

The military-political situation in Iraq demonstrates the defining role of Iran, the United States and Turkey in the country. The government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazimi is on the balance of pro-Iranian and pro-American forces in Iraq, and is therefore trying to seize the opportunities of the two countries. For example, economic, trade and energy exchanges between Iran and Iraq amount to more than $ 13 billion. The administration of President Donald Trump intends to allocate $ 600 million for training and armament of Iraqi security forces, as well as $ 120 million to support the Iraqi economy and other programs demining.

It should be noted that Iran’s ongoing Iraq strategy consists of three elements: first, neutralizing the military threat in Iraq; second, the strengthening of pro-Iranian security forces; third, the strengthening of pro-Iranian forces in Iraqi religious organizations (including the holy Shiite city of al-Najaf).

As part of this strategy, Tehran intends to connect the Iranian and Syrian ports of Imam Khomeini and Latakia by rail through Iraq (the port of Basra). This will not only help Iran neutralize US sanctions, but will also ensure Iran’s military presence in the Mediterranean. Iran’s railway project is a matter of concern in Israel, as it will provide Tehran with a military-political presence in the coastal areas of Syria (the Mediterranean region). Tehran views the Syrian coast as a strategic area for Iranian military facilities, which will facilitate the transportation of weapons along the Iran-Iraq-Syria corridor.

In addition, Tehran, through Iraq’s military-political forces, is working to withdraw US troops from Iraq, including the closure of military bases in that Arab country. About 5200 U.S. troops are currently stationed in Iraq. In recent months, the United States has reduced the number of military bases in Iraq from 12 to three.

However, Iran’s growing influence in virtually every aspect of Iraq’s life is disapproved of by Sunnis and Kurds, as well as by some influential Shiite spiritual and political leaders. They accuse Iran’s intelligence services of corrupting Iraqi officials and the government in Baghdad in general. And this is linked to the ineffective policies of the Iraqi government.

Baghdad against the US-Iranian confrontation in Iraq. The confrontation between the United States and Iran is leading to a further split between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq, who have taken different sides in the US-Iran conflict. The split leads to the division of Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parts. The trend is already visible as Baghdad finds it increasingly difficult to govern federal Iraq as US forces withdraw from the Shiite part of the country, where they are unsafe.

In other words, Baghdad seeks to maintain Washington’s support without ruining relations with Tehran. It is not yet possible for Baghdad to get rid of Iran’s influence in Iraq’s internal affairs, given Tehran’s support for Shiite groups that have a significant influence on the country’s political situation.

The United States cannot expect Baghdad to choose between Tehran and Washington, otherwise it will destabilize the domestic political situation in Iraq.

Despite the fact that now the situation in US-Iraqi relations is in favor of Washington. Despite the divisive divisions among Iraq’s political elite, the new government is committed to a constructive dialogue with the United States, with many ministers, including Prime Minister Al-Kazimi, gravitating toward Washington. This is evidenced by the results of a recent visit to the United States and a meeting with President Donald Trump M. al-Kazim. The United States will maintain a military presence in Iraq for another three years. In addition, Baghdad has signed energy agreements with Washington.

For example, al-Kazimi has taken significant steps to minimize the role of the pro-Iranian Kataib Hezbollah forces, which oppose even a minimal US presence in Iraq. At the same time, al-Kazimi seeks not to upset the balance between Iraq’s two main foreign partners, Washington and Tehran.

The US-Iraqi talks touch on the long-term modernization of the Iraqi Armed Forces, the regional agenda, diplomatic and financial support for Iraq and other topics. Washington has stressed that it does not intend to insist on a permanent US contingent in Iraq. The presence of US troops, in particular training Iraqi soldiers, benefits Iraq, where disparate members of the ISIS terrorist group continue to operate.

The US military presence in Iraq is a deterrent to the influence of Iran and Turkey in the Arab country, as well as a guarantor of the security of Iraqi Arabs in the Sunni areas of Iraq. Iran-backed Shiite units are still stationed in Sunni regions liberated from ISIS. Their presence causes great tension among local people and is seen as a major barrier to political stabilization and the return of internally displaced persons to these areas. In addition, Iran’s strong military-political presence in Iraq has fueled discontent among Sunni Arabs, which could escalate into another armed uprising and lead to a resurgence of ISIS terrorism.

At the same time, US-Iranian tensions do not lead to a direct military confrontation between Iran and the United States in Iraq. The US Presidential Administration does not yet intend to launch military operations against pro-Iranian forces (ie, Kataib Hezbollah). The United States, through cooperation with the Iraqi counterterrorism service and the use of aircraft, will strengthen the independence of the Iraqi military in order to counter pro-Iranian formations that are part of the country’s Armed Forces.

Eagle Claw

Ankara’s aspirations are to create a «safety belt» to protect against Kurdish groups along Turkey’s southern borders (from Afrin, in northwestern Syria, to the Kandil Mountains in northeastern Iraq). In fact, Ankara is trying to create a «security belt» in northern Iraq, just like northern Syria.

As part of Ankara’s strategy from June 15 this year. The Turkish military targeted PKK bases in northern Iraq during operations called Eagle Claw and Tiger Claw. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) relies on bases in northern Iraq in its long-running armed struggle against Ankara. The number of PKK militants in Iraq, including the Kurdistan region, ranges from 8500 to 10, distributed across 81 points and bases.

During the current military operation, Turkish troops have increased the number of their bases as tensions have escalated with both the Kurdistan regional government, which runs the region, and the central government in Baghdad. As a result of the military operation, Turkish troops advanced 50 km into Iraqi Kurdistan, creating 12 new bases and checkpoints.

It should be noted that Turkey has offered Baghdad to cooperate on border security. Ankara has also proposed the creation of a second border crossing with Iraq, bypassing the existing one, which leads to Iraqi Kurdistan. The proposed Turkish border crossing at Ovakoye will provide a route to Tel Afar and Mosul and allow Baghdad to regain some border controls.

Some Iraqi Islamist and nationalist groups have praised Turkey’s military operation in Iraqi Kurdistan, as it will prevent the creation of a Kurdish state. But the reaction of the Iraqi government, which includes the Kurds, has been tougher than Ankara had expected. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry has twice called on the Turkish ambassador to protest and warned that Iraq could bring the issue to the attention of the League of Arab States (LAS), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the UN Security Council. Baghdad has also threatened economic sanctions against Turkey, urging the withdrawal of Turkish troops from all facilities they occupy, including the Bashik base near Mosul.

The United States believes that Turkey and Iraq should cooperate in the fight against the PKK, while Iran should «only respect Iraqi sovereignty.» Therefore, Ankara has strengthened its coordination with the governments of Iraq and Kurdistan to defeat the armed groups operating in the area.

However, Turkey and Iran have agreed to jointly fight cross-border terrorism in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, as both countries have decided to close the Kurdish issue by force. For example, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran (IRGC) carried out air strikes in coordination with Turkey in the Iraqi Kurdistan region in June this year, shelling the Haji Omaran area, which borders Iran.

Iran views Iraqi Kurdistan as a pro-American region. In addition, Iran intends to eliminate Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups based in Iraqi Kurdistan and is therefore cooperating with Turkey.

Moreover, Iran and Turkey are increasingly coordinating their policies in the Middle East, as they seek to increase their geopolitical sphere of influence amid their latent confrontation with the KSA and Israel. By the way, the KSA strongly condemned Turkey and Iran for «aggression» in Iraq, calling their actions «unacceptable interference in the affairs of the Arab country.»

Iran and Turkey’s rivalry with Egypt, the KSA and the UAE is intensifying in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan. And Baghdad is unlikely to take this factor into account.

Force optimization

The United States is optimizing the US military presence in Iraq by redeploying its main forces based at two facilities in Iraqi Kurdistan. The strategy allows the United States to maintain operational capabilities for a possible strike on pro-Iranian proxy forces smuggling oil from Iraq to Syria in the desert, and to protect a limited U.S. contingent from constant shelling by Shiite militants, confirming the US transfer of air and missile defense systems.

It is likely that Washington is seeking to prevent Kirkuk’s oil fields from coming under Ankara’s control. In addition, the United States may establish a US military base in Diyala province, off Iran’s western border.

In turn, Ankara, as it develops the Turkish Air Force and Air Defense, in particular UAVs, seeks to limit the traditional advantage of PKK militants, which they enjoy in the hard-to-reach rural areas of Iraq. Turkey intends to achieve full movement of PKK militants between Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

However, the vast areas and rugged mountains of the region hinder the achievement of final and long-term results.

Optimizing the US presence in Iraq is weakening the position of the pro-Iranian militia, whose actions will attract even more attention from Baghdad. The United States is ready to confront Iran-backed militants in Iraq.

At the same time, the United States and Iran may avoid direct military confrontation in the future by agreeing to view Iraq as a neutral state. The Iraqi Prime Minister, M. Al-Kazimi, has decided to visit the CSR, Iran and the United States to discuss the situation with these external actors and to adjust their joint actions. However, due to the hospitalization of Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud, M. al-Kazim’s visit to the KSA was postponed.

Therefore, M. al-Kazimi began his first foreign official visit from Tehran, where he arrived on July 21 this year. led by a large high-level delegation from Iraq.

Following the talks, Baghdad and Tehran announced their intention to increase bilateral trade to $ 20 billion. Al-Kazimi stressed that Baghdad would never allow any threat from its territory to Iran.

It should be borne in mind that if M. al-Kazimi fails, the United States may declare the Iraqi government «hostile and pro-Iranian» and impose new sanctions. In addition, the complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq will lead to tensions between Baghdad and Erbil.

The American presence in Iraq leads to the establishment of relations and the establishment of peace in Iraq between Baghdad and Erbil. Moreover, the US presence helps ensure security and stability for Iraqi Kurds, as well as for Iraq as a whole. The confrontation between the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (DPK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PSK) is worsening the military-political situation, both in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Iraq as a whole. Iran, which has long-standing ties with a number of Kurdish parties, has the potential to undermine Kurdish unity.

Only such an arrangement of domestic political forces in Iraq allows the establishment of a federal structure in the Arab country. In that case, Baghdad will have real and effective leverage over Iran and Turkey in foreign policy and regional security. However, in order to transform Iraq into a full-fledged federal state, pragmatists from Iraq’s military-political elites must win early parliamentary elections. It is the Iraqi Parliament that is the key institution of Iraqi politics in a situation where the country is effectively divided, the ISIS is re-establishing itself and the number of people affected by the coronavirus is growing. The forthcoming snap parliamentary elections should change the incompetent political balance of power in the Iraqi parliament. Therefore, it is crucial for Iraqi pragmatists to win a majority in the Iraqi parliament, which will allow laws to be changed and modified according to what serves the interests of Baghdad, Ankara, Tehran and Washington.

Rauf Rajabov, Orientalist, Head of Analytical Center 3RD VIEW, Baku, Azerbaijan


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