U.S. forces “will remain in Iraq after the Islamic State has been eradicated in the country, and will then face two missions: protecting Kurdish gains and maintaining influence in Syria to prevent coordination with Iraq and ties with Iran.”*
With these few simple words, Secretary of Defense James Mattis summed up the strategy of the U.S. in Iraq and the Levant. In doing so, the general revealed nothing new about Washington's strategy in the Middle East, a strategy it inherited directly from the British Empire once the sun began to set on it in Asia and Africa in the late 1950s.
This strategy has been at the heart of multiple wars, alliances forged, and, so too, "friendships" established in the region under the banners of freedom, independence and democracy – all in the face of Arab nationalism in the days of Nasser and the Ba'ath movement. Syria and Iraq at the time were swept up by a nationalist alliance that stretched from Pakistan to Iran and Turkey, not to mention Israel, which though not officially a member, proved helpful to it.
Though the Baghdad alliance was short-lived, its objectives survive to this day. The only difference between then and now is that blood once spilled over nationalist ideology is now lost instead over sectarian rifts. Such sectarianism has become a powerful tool in the form of local civil wars, exploited by former and current colonial powers in an effort to realize their plans. Thus far, they have succeeded in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya.
The ambition of regional players in these conflicts is no less than that of the U.S., as the current situation presents a precious opportunity for America to impose its policy on local allies who believe that they can still achieve whatever goals they please. Unfortunately, they tend to forget that interests can sometimes conflict, especially when they involve the wholesale transformation of the Middle East landscape.
Turkey, for one, falls into this category, with its ruling Justice and Development Party deluded into believing that Islamic ideology is capable of confronting the dangers present within Turkey’s borders. Ankara has fallen into the very Kurdish trap it set for Iraq, with terrorists it exported to Syria now returning to Anatolia. Their defeat in Nineveh and Raqqa is a real dilemma for their former operators.
The U.S. military must now seal the Syrian-Iraqi border – the same border effectively erased by the Islamic State in 2014 – in order to block communications between Iran's allies and prevent Popular Mobilization Forces from controlling the border. Otherwise, Tehran could gain further influence in the region via the direct link with Damascus and Beirut that the border affords, tipping the current balance of power.
The United States is convinced that after reoccupying Iraq, assisting the government in rehabilitating its army and engaging directly in the fight against the Islamic State group, it is now in a position to impose its will on Baghdad under the guise of an aid program. The Future of Iraq Task Force (which comprises U.S. and Iraqi strategists and is headed by former Ambassador Ryan Crocker) has recommended that Washington strengthen Iraq’s economy, help its prime minister confront extremists and revive the Strategic Framework Agreement to promote cooperation between the two countries across multiple arenas. The Task Force also calls for mediation between Baghdad and Erbil to help settle their growing differences, especially since any military conflict would inevitably draw in Iran and Turkey, creating a new crisis that could benefit Tehran.
However, the U.S.-led coalition never planned for the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, believing instead that military force alone would suffice to realize its strategic goals. In the process, thousands of mistakes were made, enough to warrant even the admission of mistakes by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. These mistakes included handing power over to the Kurds and allies of Iran who established a rule in Baghdad that would be loyal to them, while stating intentions to the contrary of isolating Tehran and Damascus.
Now, the U.S. is planning for what will follow the defeat of the Islamic State group, the same group that facilitated a return to Mesopotamia in order to check Iranian influence in the region. They did so, however, without taking into account the interests of their allies, especially Turkey, that cannot long afford the current support of the Kurds who threaten its unity, not to mention that of Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, the White House insists that it must maintain such support to preserve Kurdish gains, as expressed by both Secretary Mattis and Ambassador Crocker.
As a result of thousands of "tactical errors" on the part of the U.S. during its occupation of Iraq, a strategic vacuum has emerged that has ignited widespread sectarian wars. Today, hundreds of new mishaps, especially in the era of Trump, will lead to even more chaos. To understand the extent of such chaos one need only look to Russia entering the fray as an ally of Iran as negotiations begin to determine spheres of influence.
Even if America succeeded in closing the borders that the Islamic State group once opened, this is just another recipe for future civil wars.
*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.