Diario Judío México - In reality, it’s never time to panic. However, it is indeed time to reevaluate stagnating US policy in the Middle East. The recent news that an identified Iranian convoy has crossed through Iraq and entered Syria, possibly through the completed Tehran-Damascus road, should certainly give the administration pause. The security implications here are multifold.
First, if the road is indeed complete, this greatly facilitates the entrance of the IRGC, Hashd al-Shaabi, and any other Iran-affiliated forces and militias, into the country, greatly increasing chances for violence on the border with Israel, and trouble inside the country. Iranian takeover of Kirkuk has been violent, with rumors of Christians and Kurds being raped by Hashd and other groups, houses being burned down, and Peshmerga being taken prisoners and tortured. More of the same can be expected in Syria, if Iranian presence there increases significantly. Stopping the flow of the military, terrorists, and arms in and out of the country will require a significantly greater commitment from the US-backed SDF, and indeed, perhaps the US troops in Syria. All of this could have been avoided, had the US disrupted the building of this passageway and pushed back against Iranian incursion into Syria months ago.
Second, it is clear that at least part of the purpose for the Iranian growing presence in Iraq, in addition to exploitation of local resources, containment of Kurdish independence movements, and cultural colonization, is to provide a safe passage for Iranian convoys traveling to Syria and other parts of the Middle East. The illusion of Iraq’s independence is quickly unraveling before the international community; the Trump administration’s policy of non-intervention has already proven to be a colossal failure, and will further endanger the US troops, as well as US allies, as time passes. The US position thus far has been contingent on finishing off ISIS in Iraq with the help of Baghdad, and ensuring continuous Baghdad cooperation vis-a-vis Tehran. To that effect, the United States facilitated a defense treaty between al-Abadi and King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Despite warnings of caution, however, it was obvious that such a plan was bound to fail. Appeasing Baghdad at the expense of the Kurds did not bring greater independence from Iran; on the contrary, it gave the regime greenlight to treat Iraq as its own proxy. The results are self evident: essentially, increased contiguous territory for the regime, coupled with the lucrative access to oil in the Kirkuk area, easy area for training and operations, and stronger partnership with the Russia, which has likewise has been expanding its reach in the region.
Third, Syria is about to experience a resurgence of conflict. With Russia and Iran both building naval bases and other fortifications, close to the border of Israel, and with Israel having already attacked Iranian arms factories in recent weeks, trouble is easily foreseeable. Iranians and Russians are interested in not only gaining access to the Strait of Hormuz but denying it to their regional rivals and to the US. Furthermore, as Iranians and Russians are growing closer to Turkey, which has reluctantly agreed to Assad’s temporary positions, but is looking to prevent Syrian Kurds from creating an autonomy contiguous to Turkish border, where a large Kurdish population reside, various groups of varying ethnicities and religions are likely to clash. Saudis, which have been tentatively aligned with Turkey, are likely to separate from Turkey, as Turkey supports Qatar, an ally of Iran, and in a stand off with other Gulf States at the moment. Saudi has retained trained relations with Russia, but views Iran as an existential threat. Turkey, however, has new defense treaties with Iran, and an MOU over the Kurds, which have been a problem inside Iran as well, reacting strongly and at times violently to Iran’s politics of oppressing minorities and exploiting natural resources in the areas where they reside. Turkey is likely aiming to divide the US-backed SDF, comprised of various Kurdish factions, as well as some Sunni Arabs. Turkey has already been pressuring the US to move away from arming the Kurds as the fight against ISIS dies down, and the Pentagon has shown sides of conceding. In light of everything else that is going on, that is a major mistake. More than anything else, the US strategic interests in Syria are as follows:
1. Prevent adversarial states from cutting off crucial waterways/trade routes for US and its Gulf allies
2. Ensure that Syria does not completely turn into a souk/bazaar for drug traffickers, terrorists, and assorted violent factions and criminal mastermind.
3. Preventing attacks on civilians, US allies, as well as ensuring border security with Israel.
4. Preventing further development of WMD, and potential cooperation with North Korea, which has been rumored to operate in Syria as well.
5. Prevent Iranian and Turkish expansionism, and de facto colonization of the entire region and beyond.
With Turkey turning towards Iran and away from Saudi Arabia, minimizing conflict and influence of those two states is becoming increasingly difficult, even in theory. And separating Iran from Russia at the moment is less and less likely; the two countries, though both vying for power, have come to a relatively amicable division of spheres of influence and have not yet gotten to the point of fighting over Iraqi pipelines to Turkey, base territories, control of particular groups, and so forth. One point of potential conflict may be Russia’s growing alliance with the Kurds, who are seeing the US increasingly turn her back on them. Both Iran and Turkey eye Kurds with hostility, and if Assad is replaced in the near future, Iran will likely look to place a much more ruthless leader who will crack down on minorities rather than work with them. Assad had essentially accepted arrangements with various minority, groups including the Kurds, which are building a federal autonomy, while recognizing Syrian sovereignty.
Likewise, Turkish alliance with Qataris, as well as assorted Sunni terrorist organizations remains an open issue. Sooner or later, Turkey will want to expand its own influence, and we may see the clashes of Muslim Brotherhood backed groups with Iran’s Shi’a militias. But Turkey may also choose to avoid unnecessary battles, bargain over some limited influence, and bide its time until opportunity presents itself to advance its neo-Ottoman vision. That is, in fact, a more likely scenario. US appears to have increasingly less influence over the Qataris,w hich house a US base, and which are now openly backing Iran. It’s unclear what the US is getting out of arrangement; at this point, it is essentially arming its own enemy. The Iran-Qatar-Turkish trifecta is no match for the US in Syria, and coupled with Russia’s ambition, essentially minimizes any possibility for the US to remain effective, not just in Syria but in any part of the region. The action plan, at this point, should be to start rolling back the influence of each of these actors to the extent possible, by weakening each individually, and engaging in deliberately divisive actions and relations.
For instance, US should continue backing Kurds despite Turkey’s ultimatums, and in fact, utilize its status in NATO to pressure Turkey towards retreat on certain fronts. It should likewise avoid neutrality in the Gulf crisis, and despite Saudi previous deceit with respect to the origin of the Qatar conflict, actively back the measures the Saudis are requesting, which are, at the end of the day, in the US interests. Having a base on Qatar and engaging in joint training and arms sales means that the US essentially is arming pro-Iran groups, and much of that training and arms may end up in Iranian hands.
Qatar should make a choice whether it is to be the full fledged partner of the US, in which case business goes on as usual, kicks out the terrorist groups, reforms or shuts down Al Jazeera, and abides by counter-Iran sanctions, or else it is treated as an Iranian proxy and an enemy, the base is relocated to UAE, and any arms sales to Qatar is sanctioned under the same provisions as Iran. Iranian militias in Syria should be treated exactly as ISIS cells; they are terrorists, and have no business being there. They should be destroyed; and any routes for convoys disrupted. Likewise, Baghdad should be put on notice – either they stop facilitating the passage of Iranians to Syria, and have Iran withdraw Hashd and stop harassing Kurds and minorities, or joint training programs and provision of arms to Iraq is defunded.
None of these steps will work overnight, guarantee success, or ensure regional security and stability. But without taking these action items, there is little doubt that the conditions will continue to deteriorate further. The smooth passage of the unidentified Iranian convoy into Syria was a wake up call, which, if not heeded, will signal clear path to much more worrisome events ahead.