The US’s longstanding project to push for an independent Kurdistan in the oil-rich regions of northern Iraq and Syria in the downstream of the defeat of the ISIS have run into strong headwinds. This could have been anticipated because the plans essentially devolve upon the balkanization of Syria and Iraq, which will be seriously resisted by the non-Kurdish Arab people.
The Iraqi Vice-President Nouri Maliki did some plain speaking on Friday when he warned the US against any attempt to claw its way back into Iraq as an occupation force on the pretext of fighting the ISIS threat. Maliki said: “We do not want a military base in al-Waleed, the Iraqi society is against foreign bases on the country’s territory … I told the US side it was not in its interests to return to Iraq to establish military bases again.”
Maliki was instrumental as the then Iraqi Prime Minister in slamming the door shut on continued US military presence beyond 2009. The Obama administration eventually settled scores by ousting Maliki and having him replaced by a more amiable leadership in Baghdad. But then, Maliki cannot be put down for long and the irrepressible Shi’ite politician is back on the centre stage of Iraqi nationalism. The wheel has come full circle.
Now, Maliki didn’t speak out of turn. Three developments in the past ten days suggest that practical steps are being taken by other interested parties also to subvert the US calculus. Thus, Turkey simply decided to ‘declassify’ the exact location of the American military bases in northern Iraq in the Kurdish region. It was supposed to be ‘Top Secret’ information but Turkish news agency Anadolu nonetheless published the details of their exact location, nature and size ten days ago.
It transpires that the Pentagon has surreptitiously established not less than eleven US military bases in northern Syria so far.
Unsurprisingly, Pentagon is peeved that the Turkish ‘leak’ puts the lives of US service personnel in jeopardy! Now, isn’t that funny? After all, war is dangerous business; besides, when you go and set up a string of military bases in a faraway country without bothering to even intimate the local government, you are asking for serious trouble.
True, the terrorist groups rampant in Syria and Iraq now know precisely where to hit if they want to get at American interests. Although the western media have been advised not to carry the Anadolu report, it is bazaar gossip now all over the Muslim Middle East.
Map detailing the US bases in Kurdistan, published by the official Turkish Anadolu Ajansi
Evidently, it is payback time for Turkey on the first anniversary of the attempted coup of July 15, 2016, which Ankara believes had CIA backing. Also, Turkey is livid that the US is consolidating its military presence in northern Syria and is beefing up the Kurdish militia by way of providing the strategic underpinning for an independent Kurdistan.
Indeed, Turkey is a stakeholder (along with Iran and Russia) in preserving the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq. Thus, in another development last Thursday, Moscow confirmed that it has struck a major arms deal with Baghdad to deliver “a large batch” of advanced Russian-made T-90 tanks to the Iraqi military. Vladimir Kozhin, an aide to the Russian president on military-technical cooperation, disclosed this to Izvestiya newspaper and it has also been confirmed by the Iraqi defence ministry. T-90 is among the best-selling tanks in the world.
So, what is Moscow’s game plan? At the most obvious level, Moscow is reclaiming its traditional partnership with Baghdad (till the US invasion of Iraq in 2003) in the military field. Without doubt, Russia intends to contest any attempt by the US to exercise monopoly in this field. Second, in political terms, Russia estimates that a strong Iraqi army is the best guarantee against any moves to challenge the country’s unity. Indeed, Iraqis have seen that T-90 tanks have done splendidly well in the operations against ISIS in Syria, especially in Aleppo.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, an Iran-Iraq defence agreement has been unveiled in Tehran. The Iranian news agency IRNA reported yesterday that the agreement provides for the “expansion of cooperation and sharing experiences in the fields of fight against terrorism and extremism, border security, training, logistics, technical and military supports.”
Of course, like Turkey and Russia, Iran also would have high stakes in ensuring Iraq’s territorial integrity. Kurdish separatism is a challenge that Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran have faced in the past. The shared concerns in this regard could be the basis of a regional convergence in opposing the US plans to encourage Kurdish independence.
The Iraqi Shi’ite militia, trained and equipped by Iran and supported by Iranian advisors drawn from the elite Quds Force, have played a crucial role in the liberation of Mosul and in the overall struggle against the ISIS. Known as the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, they form the backbone of the Iraqi war machine.
From the Iranian perspective, it is of utmost importance to strengthen the ‘axis of resistance’, given the Trump administration’s hostile policies toward Tehran. Iran will see any prospect of US presence in Iraq as an existential threat. Put simply, keeping Iraq, a major OPEC country, out of the US orbit becomes an absolute strategic necessity for Tehran.
US forces, accompanied by Kurdish YPG fighters, near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah