By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
Perhaps the most succinct expression of Donald Trump’s attitude to Iran’s regional meddling came during a recent Cabinet meeting, when the US President dismissively told his foreign policy team that Iran’s leaders could “do what they want” in Syria —echoing remarks a couple of weeks before, when he told Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “Syria is all yours.”
Trump’s lurch away from tangible action against Iran left National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struggling to articulate US policy to bemused leaders during recent trips to the region. Pompeo’s arrival in Iraq highlighted the growing divergence between the US world view and that of factions in the ascendancy in Baghdad.
They appear to have disagreed on everything of consequence.
Pompeo demanded the severing of economic ties between Baghdad and Tehran, but his visit coincided with the conspicuous appearance of a high-level Iranian trade delegation. Pompeo bluntly told Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi that if Israel strikes pro-Iranian elements in Iraq — a prospect that has become increasingly likely with news that these forces are stockpiling Iranian-made medium-range missiles — then the US won’t intervene.
Trump speculated about US troops in Iraq being used to eliminate Daesh remnants on both sides of the Syria border, which amplified calls in Baghdad for American troops to get out of Iraq altogether. The US demands the demobilization of pro-Iranian militants under the Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary umbrella, but in the emerging new Baghdad administration these paramilitaries are increasingly calling the shots.
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led the recent trade delegation, contributed to Pompeo’s cool reception by retorting that the US had no right to interfere in relations between Iran and Iraq. Iran is promoting measures to eliminate tariffs, border fees and taxes on bilateral trade. Since Iraq is Tehran’s second-biggest export market, and given the ease with which Iran continues to export oil through legal and illegal channels, Trump’s much-hyped sanctions are becoming nonsensical.
Iraq is approaching a year without a government with no sign of a breakthrough. Deadlock has resulted over the choice of interior minister. Militants close to Iran have controlled the ministry for most of the period since 2005; they are determined to retain their stranglehold on domestic security setor by appointing a close ally, National Security Adviser Faleh Al-Fayyadh — also nominal head of the Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi Commission.
Iranian proxies in both Syria and Iraq are positioning themselves to benefit from the US pullout, engaging in joint maneuvers deep inside Syrian territory. It is no coincidence that the emerging battle-lines coincide with Syria’s principle oilfields. Bashar Assad has reportedly agreed with Al-Fayyad to reactivate coordination between tribal groups in northeast Syria and Iraqi forces. Such activity effectively eliminates the Syria-Iraq border, just as Daesh treated these two states as a single theater of operations.
Increased militant activity leaves US forces in western Iraq vulnerable to attack, which paramilitaries have been gleefully threatening for some time. US regional envoy Brett McGurk, who resigned over the Syria pullout, has argued that the American presence in Syria was small and cost-effective, while the pullout would embolden Daesh and other militants. The first substantial US casualties did indeed come in a suicide attack after the pull-out announcement.
To Trump and his shortsighted supporters, who cares if Iran takes over the region? Yet the risks of abandoning Syria and Iraq to the ayatollahs are all too obvious. Vicious campaigns of sectarian cleansing against Iraqi Sunnis by Iran-backed militants prepared the ground for the 2014 ascendancy of Daesh, after its predecessors had been soundly defeated.
Sectarian and corrupt governance in Iraq will encourage separatist and anti-state impulses by disenfranchised Iraqis. This includes tens of thousands of Shiite demonstrators in southern Iraq who suffer humiliating poverty despite their homeland’s vast oil wealth. Iranian hegemony in Syria, along with efforts by Turkey, Israel, Russia and others to carve out zones of influence, will inevitably result in uprisings and renewed conflicts of even greater ferocity.
Western public opinion is still scarred by the stupidities of the 2003 Iraq invasion. However, even hardened isolationists should be able to realize that the resulting instability would trigger new bouts of global terrorism, massive refugee crises and threats to energy security, while further destabilizing the wider region. Trump is the kind of cynical politician who would unashamedly seek to capitalize on the fears and tensions created by such global threats. But for conscientious Americans and Europeans, the dangers of surrendering Syria and Iraq to Iran should be obvious.
The region has never been in greater need of responsible global powers and effective international institutions to facilitate regional stability, eradicate terrorists and militants, and cultivate local administrations that respect human rights and the rule of law. But I forget when the EU and UN last seemed relevant, while the Russians and Chinese are shortsightedly exploiting the chaos to maximize their local footprint.
Iran’s use of local militias is a cheap route to regional domination, yet global and regional powers still have no effective response. Military solutions have tended to prove disastrous, but Pompeo’s assertion that America’s deeply flawed sanctions regime will force “every last Iranian” out of Syria is laughable.
If we don’t want to be faced with a region where civil order has wholly broken down under the writ of Tehran-backed paramilitaries, then the civilized world must bite the bullet and countenance a more comprehensive and aggressive containment regime than has so far been politically palatable, rolling back Iranian meddling and forcing Tehran to play by the international rules. If not, we will be paying the price of Trump’s decision to walk away and let the ayatollahs “do what they want” for many decades to come.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.