In an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation conducted on Friday, but broadcast on Sunday morning, US President Donald Trump affirmed his intention to keep US troops in Iraq but to withdraw them “slowly” from Syria.
Trump explained that a significant number of the 2,000 US forces now in Syria, will be shifted to Iraq. A major purpose of the continued US troop presence there will be to keep an eye on Iran, Trump explained.
“We spent a fortune on building this incredible base,” Trump said, referring to al-Asad Air Base, which he visited over Christmas.
“One of the reasons that I want to keep it,” he continued, “is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran, because Iran is a real problem.”
In that statement, Trump introduced, or re-introduced, an important, but fairly novel, concept in US thinking about its military activities in the region.
Iraq is strategic territory—in the middle of the Middle East and abutting dangerous, nefarious actors, like Iran and Syria. Afghanistan is remote, mountainous terrain, and underdeveloped as well—one of the lowest literacy rates in the world.
Already in 1993, this reporter, speaking separately with Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, leaders of the two major Kurdish parties, then in control of the newly liberated Kurdistan Region of Iraq, asked if they might accept a US air base on their territory—an area the size of Switzerland.
If so, the US Air Force would be sitting on the back of Saddam Hussein and on the flank of Tehran’s clerical regime, which would be strategic.
Without hesitation, Barzani and Talabani each responded, “Please! You are welcome!”
But it was not to be. Washington gave little thought to Iraq then, particularly after Bill Clinton became president. It insisted on seeing the Kurdistan Region as part of Iraq, even subjecting it to the same international embargo imposed on the entire country.
Following Sunday’s broadcast of Trump’s interview,The New York Timesprovided more details about US planning for the withdrawal from Syria. It reported that the US “has quietly been negotiating with Iraq” to permit a significant number of troops, “perhaps hundreds,” now in Syria “to shift to bases in Iraq,” from where they could strike the Islamic State and support allied forces, including the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF.)
Such a shift would significantly increase the importance of US military facilities in the Kurdistan Region, most notably at Erbil’s airport, where the US has a base.
“Senior American officers recently visited several Iraqi bases, including Erbil and Al-Asad Air Base as well as smaller ones closer to the Syrian border,” theTimesreported.
US forces have begun withdrawing equipment from Syria, but not yet troops, theTimesalso said. In fact, troop levels in Syria have increased to provide a logistic force for the withdrawal and to increase security as the withdrawal proceeds.
However, one serious problem is already apparent: Iraq may not agree to the US plan. Even before the idea arose of shifting US forces from Syria to Iraq, political pressure was building to end the US military presence in Iraq.
Under the Obama administration, the US accommodated Iranian influence in Iraq, and that continued even after Trump took office. Iraq was not a top priority for the new administration—although quite arguably, one could not devise a policy toward Iran (which was a high priority) without considering Iraq as well.
So Obama’s policy essentially continued for over a year under Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.
That lay behind Washington’s turning a blind eye to Baghdad’s October 2017 assault on Kirkuk and other disputed areas, in a military operation engineered by Qasim Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Had the Trump administration been more sensitive to the need to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, it would not have let that happen. Only now, with the departure of Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk and Amb. Douglas Silliman, have key individualsresponsiblefor that policy departed the scene.
The pro-Iranian, anti-American bloc in Iraq’s parliament is now strong. As Michael Pregent of the Hudson Institute explained last week, the leading parties in Iraq’s parliament are anti-American, “and they’re asking for the immediate exit of Americans from Iraq.”
Thus, Trump’s statement “could well cause even more problems,” a knowledgeable Washington observer remarked to Kurdistan 24, as “Iran will push to expel US troops through legislation in the Iraqi parliament.”
Because the stakes in war are so high, military planners typically like to have options. If one plan doesn’t work, there is a fall-back plan. That puts a premium on having ample resources and flexibility. Trump could be shaving his options so thinly that he will have no plan if Iraq’s parliament votes against him—unless, of course, he is willing to reconsider his administration’s earlier opposition to independence for the Kurdistan Region.