The dust has not yet settled around the recent chaotic withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan, and another no less dramatic decision is on the horizon – that of withdrawing from Iraq.
The world media have not stopped writing about the American unorganized withdrawal from Afghanistan, and another lost battle is on the horizon – Iraq. Iraq occupies a significant place in the fight for the Middle East, and despite the fact that the Islamic State has been de facto destroyed, the American armed forces are postponing their withdrawal from Iraq. The three remaining bases and 2,500 troops appear to be islands in a sea of pro-Iranian Shiite militias that officially number about 200,000. Then why delay the withdrawal?
Former US President Donald Trump clearly stated “his” plans to withdraw from the eternal wars. Despite the different expectations of the American allies in the Middle East, the new American president Joe Biden practically confirmed that he would implement Trump’s plans. If we exclude the views on energy policy, where the proponents of the “green agenda” and “traditionalists” are fighting, it seems that America’s foreign policy course is based on priorities on the ground, and not on who is the president of that country, as advocates of victory of one or another candidate.
Iraq occupies a special place in the American global strategy. About three to three and a half thousand American soldiers in Syria and Iraq are the last obstacle to the creation of a new military-economic coalition of Syria, Iraq and Iran – potentially Lebanon – which would materialize after the complete withdrawal of American troops from the region. A small contingent of the American army in the Syrian part of the Euphrates keeps the Syrian government in economic chess, while the remaining three bases in Iraq provide some kind of logistics for the maintenance of the garrison in Syria.
The logistics of the American army are under daily attacks by Shiite militias. If there is a withdrawal from Iraq, the only way to supply American troops in northeastern Syria would be by air. If we take into account that many regional actors (Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran) are ready to fiercely oppose the plans to create a Kurdish state, the rest of the American troops in the region would be practically impossible. Therefore, leaving Iraq represents the fall of the first (or, if we look at it in the macro-regional context, the second) dominoes.
The Biden administration suffers the greatest pressure from the Israeli lobby, which believes that the American withdrawal would leave that country surrounded by Iran and its regional allies. Recently, former Mossad chief Josi Cohen stated that he expects American troops to withdraw from Iraq soon, and that this should be of great concern to the Israeli political leadership.
All these years, the battle has been fought over the perspective of the development of the Middle East. Syria, with the help of its allies, endured more than 10 years of war. Today, after the elimination of the largest number of the population that belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood or Wahhabi movements, it can be said that the Syrians have matured into a single nation. The situation in Iraq is specific. With some exceptions, the war on the ground was reduced to a Shiite-Sunni war in which the Shiites won.
The Sunni triangle has lost its biological potential for an uprising against Baghdad. Destroyed several times in open battles, they were left without a militarily capable male population that would fight against the central government. What is left are the cells of the resistance of the Islamic State and various Sunni-bassist groups (supporters of Saddam Hussein), which can offer guerrilla or terrorist resistance for years to come, but without the prospect of doing anything significant in the military sense.
The Kurdish card played by Western countries has also been used up. The Kurdish broad autonomous region is surrounded on all sides by enemies of Kurdish independence. An attempt to declare independence would lead the Kurds to direct military defeat and degrade their current status. So, regardless of the referendum they held and the desire for independence, the Kurds did not embark on an adventure that the West tried to push them into, counting on further destabilization of the Middle East.
A new Shiite army
In addition to political pressure and the resolution passed in the Iraqi parliament on the gradual abandonment of the American army by the end of 2021, another fact is becoming more visible day by day. Namely, Shiite militias under the auspices of Iran are getting a new organizational form, new weapons and are carrying out continuous attacks on US logistics convoys, which are mostly sent from Kuwait. In addition, they do not hesitate to occasionally rocket American bases, even in the Kurdish part of Iraq. The recent attack on the base in Erbil, which resulted in several casualties, showed the Americans that they are no longer safe in the Kurdish part of Iraq either.
In recent months, the attacks have intensified. Of course, they do not cause great human and material damage to American forces, but the frustrating fact is that there is no defense against them. Truck drivers from intermediary companies that supply American bases are like a lottery lottery. Pictures and videos of destroyed trucks and other techniques flood the internet every day.
What worries the United States and Israel more than attacks on convoys and bases is the organizational structure of Shiite forces. They have in fact become a parallel government in Iraq, with their own armed forces. Initially, while the war against the Islamic State was just beginning, masses of Shiite volunteers acted as a disorganized mob. However, over time, with the organizational support of Iran’s Quds forces and their Hezbollah allies, they have grown into a serious military force, with their own logistics and hospital system.
They are constituted as the second largest political force in the Iraqi parliament. Many middle-class European countries would envy the weapons they receive from Iran. A recent parade in Baghdad showed off their more than impressive arsenal, which includes RAD-24 multi-barrel rocket launchers, electronic warfare equipment, Mohajir-6 drones and various other weapons. This parallel army is a model of expeditionary troops that Iran is already developing in the region. Generally speaking, the minimal American presence in Iraq does not endanger the spread of Iranian influence in that country, for which the religious factor is the most deserving. Pro-Western forces, which organized anti-Iranian demonstrations in Iraq, failed to demonstrate greater numbers, and the protests quickly subsided.
The most serious threat to the regional interests of America and its allies will be the arming of Shiite militias with Iranian medium-range missiles. Some intelligence sources say that they have already received them. Two years ago, the Yemeni Houthis allegedly attacked drones at Saudi refineries, but some experts claimed that Iranian-made cruise missiles had just been fired from the soil of today’s Iraq. Another example was the killing of 11 members of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Erbil by Iranian medium-range missiles, which hit the room where they were holding the meeting. In short, when Iran, through its intermediaries, strengthens its presence in Iraq and develops its model of expeditionary forces, it will drastically increase Iran’s power in the region, after which it will be easier for that country to further project its security and economic expansion.
Drawing parallels with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, we see that a similar process of gradual reduction of troops is taking place in Iraq, all the way to the expected withdrawal. Out of over 5,000 American and several thousand coalition soldiers, only about 2,500 are now left. Out of 12 bases of smaller or larger volume, they have been reduced to three, of which the most important base is certainly “Al Assad” in the province of Anbar.
In July, US President Biden said that the United States would complete combat missions in Iraq by the end of the year, and that only military advisers would remain in that country. The withdrawal of the remaining American troops should begin on October 1 and be completed by January 1.
Although planned and announced in advance, due to the desire to deploy American forces to other priority points on the planet, the withdrawal leaves a bitter pill to American regional allies who will remain endangered after other regional powers fill the power vacuum.