Will 2017 be the apex of US power in the Middle East?
It is certainly shaping up that way. As I write this, Iraqi government forces and Iranian-backed Population Mobilisation Units (PMU) militia are consolidating control over the previously Kurdish-administrated city of Kirkuk. Whilst not part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) region, this city was symbolically taken by Kurdish Peshmerga militia following the collapse of the Iraqi army during the 2014 Islamic State (IS) offensive in Northern Iraq. Mixed, multi-ethnic and oil-rich, the fall of Kirkuk to Iraqi federal forces represents the decline of US influence in the region. In its place, we see the rise of Shi’ite Iran, acting indirectly through its PMU proxy in Iraq, and directly through its intervention in Syria. Russia is fast replacing the US in Syria as the main power broker. The KRG and its Peshmerga forces have been a major ally of the United States since the 1990s, and especially since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Likewise, they have been a steadfast partner in the fight against the Islamic State. But with IS falling rapidly, America war-weary after costly interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and with an anti-interventionist president sitting in the Oval Office, is 2017 the beginning of the end for US power in the Middle East?
Iraqi forces have captured the major K1 military base and Kirkuk International Airport, whilst Iraqi Special Operations Forces have been photographed raising an Iraqi flag in the centre of Kirkuk. The Peshmerga offered little resistance and surrendered the city to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). However, the ISF are different to Iran’s proxy PMU militia, who are deeply mistrusted by the Kurdish population because of their strong Shi’ite affiliation. A similar phenomenon was seen during the retaking of Mosul from Islamic State earlier in the year, with the Iraqi government preventing the PMU from being involved for fighting in the Sunni-dominated city. The PMU militia should be viewed as symbolic of Iran’s increasingly aggressive stance in the Middle East.
Iraqi Kurdistan is weakened by internal disputes between the Kurdish Democratic Party, ruled by the current President of the Kurdistan Regional Government Masoud Barzani, and their rivals the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Peshmerga loyalties are divided between these two parties. Iraqi Kurdisan’s politics and its current regional isolation make it highly susceptible to the Iraqi attack. Turkey publicly backs the Iraqi incursion, because it claims the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Turkish Kurdish militant group, have infiltrated the KRG. As such, Iraqi Kurdistan is totally surrounded by hostile neighbours.
US silence over Iraqi Kurdistan’s controversial referendum on September 25th has only emboldened Iran, Turkey and Iraq to isolate the region. Turkey proclaimed a yet unfulfilled threat to close Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil pipeline, Iran has closed its border crossings, and Iraq has now attacked Kurdish-controlled regions. One must assume that the inherent weakness of the US State Department under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has hamstrung American efforts to prevent its Iraqi and Kurdish allies fighting over Kirkuk. Tillerson has been equally hamstrung by President Trump. US Senator Bob Corker put it more colloquially, claiming that Tillerson had been ‘castrated’ by Trump, when the president tweeted that Tillerson was ‘wasting his time’ trying to negotiate with North Korea.
Such unprecedented, public undermining of America’s top foreign policy official has served only to weaken US interests abroad. It is telling that Tillerson has not yet denied that he called Trump a ‘moron’, or worse, a ‘fucking moron’, and far from denying being ‘castrated’ by Trump, he has stated that he is still ‘intact’. This suggests that Tillerson indeed feels that his president is weakening the State Department’s influence overseas. This cannot be explained away as falling under Trump’s foreign policy doctrine of non-intervention. He has practically threatened North Korea, albeit in tweet format, with nuclear apocalypse. Trump has yet to appoint ambassadors to forty-eight countries worldwide. It is incompetence at the highest level of American government.
Without letting this story descend into a blog about President Trump’s well-documented love of public spats, these events are all linked. It is no secret that the State Department is weakened by Trump’s ineffective leadership and his failure to fully support his secretary of state. This, in turn, emanates into American foreign policy worldwide.
With the impending collapse of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the legitimate reason for America and Iran to fight a common enemy is dissipating. But America under Trump is not willing to fill the geopolitical void created by the fall of IS. Trump has already pulled the plug on the Obama-era policy of providing materiel and aid to the Free Syrian Army, instead throwing American weight behind the Syrian Kurdish-Arab coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Meanwhile, Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian government has made significant gains against IS in the east of Syria, backed primarily by the Russian military, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and a second Iranian proxy, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
It has been noteworthy that US involvement in the Syrian Civil War has declined since Trump’s attack on the Syrian chemical weapons base at Shayrat. In America’s place, Russia and Turkey have stepped in. Turkey, more concerned in weakening Syria’s Kurds, have enabled Russia and Iran to further strengthen the Syrian regime. There is an end in sight to the Syrian conflict now, and it looks to be a Syrian landscape dominated by the Russia/Iran backed-government, the Kurds of the SDF and the Islamists of the Idlib region. With the Free Syrian Army seemingly abandoned by the US, the only stake America now has in the conflict is with the SDF of the Rojava region. America’s backing of this group puts them at odds with NATO member and key Western ally, Turkey, whose military have clashed with the SDF on several occasions.
As Iraqi federal units advance into Kirkuk, it is essential a ludicrous situation be mentioned. Whilst being careful to avoid fake reports, Kurdish and Iraqi sources have confirmed clashes between Peshmerga and Iranian-backed PMU. But worst of all, if fighting came to the fore, Peshmerga would use US-supplied weapons to combat the Iraqi federal forces’ US-supplied vehicles. American M1 Abram tanks have been photographed in the Kirkuk region on Twitter. The absurd situation of two American-backed allies fighting each other must have sent alarm bells ringing in the White House. Thus far, the US-led coalition are only observing the conflict. Whilst the United States did caution the Iraqi Kurdish region against holding the referendum, the failure or unwillingness to protect an erstwhile Western ally from Iraqi and Iranian aggression speaks volumes about the decline of Pax Americana in the Middle East.