US withdrawal from Syria strains Iraq relationship

There are about 5,000 US troops deployed in Iraq and additional personnel could put more pressure on Baghdad as it balances relationships with Tehran and Washington.
Saturday 26/10/2019
Clearing the air. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (R) and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper in Baghdad, October 23.(Reuters)
Clearing the air. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (R) and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper in Baghdad, October 23.(Reuters)

WASHINGTON - An announcement by the Pentagon that US troops leaving Syria would conduct operations against the Islamic State in Iraq has taken Iraqi authorities by surprise and is a sign that the two countries are not on the same page, an analyst said.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper arrived in Iraq October 21, one day after the announcement, to discuss troop deployments. After meeting with Esper, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said US troops would not be staying in Iraq longer than a month.

“The government has confirmed that it will not grant permission for US forces retreating from Syrian territory to remain in Iraqi territory,” Abdul-Mahdi said. Esper said US troops would eventually be stationed in Kuwait, Qatar or the United States.

Brett McGurk, former US special envoy to the global coalition to counter the Islamic State (ISIS), said the confusion was because of a lack of coordination between the two countries.

“It’s unfortunate that US officials apparently never asked or coordinated with Iraq before announcing that our troops withdrawing from Syria would remain in Iraq. Losing these forces altogether removes a significant capability against ISIS,” McGurk posted on Twitter.

There are about 5,000 US troops deployed in Iraq and additional personnel could put a strain on Baghdad as it balances relationships with Tehran and Washington.

“Pro-Iranian factions in the Iraqi parliament are already agitating for the expulsion of US troops and are likely to seize upon the arrival of more of them. Militias with close ties to Tehran have previously threatened to strike US interests in Iraq,” Sune Engel Rasmussen and Isabel Coles wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

The US government wants its troops to remain in Iraq partly because of doubts that Turkey will be effective in combating ISIS. Turkey and Russia came to an agreement October 22 in which they brokered mutual control for north-eastern Syria, recently occupied by US troops. The agreement threatens the balance of power in the Middle East and US influence in Syria.

Michael Carpenter, managing director at the Penn Biden Centre, said Russia is using Turkey as a proxy in Syria. “Moscow is now the powerbroker in the Middle East as Trump has rendered the US irrelevant,” he said on Twitter.

The agreement between Russia and Turkey calls for the removal of the Syrian Kurdish forces from the buffer zone at the border of north-eastern Syria.

The shift may allow Syrian President Bashar Assad to make gains in the Syrian civil war as well. Syrian security forces returned to the north-eastern region shortly after the agreement, an area that they had not been able to enter since the US occupation.

The result of the manoeuvring could threaten US oil interests in the region. US officials intend to have troops protect Syrian oil fields, Esper said.

“The purpose is to deny access, specifically revenue, to ISIS and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities,” he said.

Despite Turkey’s agreement with Russia, US President Donald Trump announced that he and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had reached a permanent ceasefire agreement.

Turkey said it would stop its offensive in Syria, “making the ceasefire permanent and it will indeed be permanent,” Trump said. He confirmed that economic sanctions on Turkey would be lifted.

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