US takes Israel’s advice for unified ‘Syraq’ strategy

Current discussions in US media regarding the US’ troop withdrawal plans in Syria are so patently directed at Trump politically. His detractors have a field day lampooning him and his top officials than about the evolving US strategy in Syria and Iraq  more appropriately, the “Syraq” strategy. Simply put, the Syrian war is morphing with the US drawing Iraq into it and bringing the western alliance system into the enterprise. Bottom of Form

Reports suggest that the US is quietly stepping up deployments to Iraq. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just made “surprise visits” to Erbil and Baghdad. He was plainly dismissive that “there’s no contradiction whatsoever” in the shifting US strategy on Syria. The “Syraq” strategy is going to put Russia, Turkey and Iran in a quandary. They have to adapt quickly because their divergent interests in the conflict and the underlying contradictions in their axis will soon begin to surge.

This ‘big picture’ remains elusive unless the NATO Mission in Iraq that appeared on the horizon is co-related with the US’s withdrawal plan in Syria. At the end of last year, on December 5, Baghdad was the venue of an intriguing conference when the recently established NATO Mission in Iraq (NMI) conducted an “introduction Event” at the Iraqi Ministry of Defence.

According to the press release issued by NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, the conference was attended by “key leaders from across the Iraqi Security and Defence sector. They included the Iraqi Chief of Staff, General Othman Al-Ghanimi” and representatives from various international partner missions, organizations and entities such as the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, the European Union Advise Mission in Iraq, the United Nations Assistance Mission Iraq, and the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq and Diplomatic Missions.

The NMI Commander, Canadian general Dany Fortin, introduced the mission’s mandate, vision and aim as a “new iteration of a long-standing relationship” between NATO and Iraq, one that will bring together “expertise and best practice in security / defence sector reform, institution building and training and education from the entire Alliance and its partners.”

After several Q&A sessions, the Iraqi army chief General Othman Al-Ghanimi concluded with a clear endorsement of NMI and stressed the importance of a long-term cooperation between Iraq and the NATO project. The launch of the NMI mission, of course, carried the imprimatur of the US. Importantly, it took place just a fortnight before US President Donald Trump made his dramatic announcement on the withdrawal of American troops from Syria.

And exactly a fortnight thereafter  that is, three weeks after the NMI appeared in Baghdad  Trump made a “surprise visit” to al-Asad Air Base, situated in western Iraq between Baghdad and the Syrian border. Trump’s visit, accompanied by his wife, was highly symbolic, being his first trip to troops stationed in a combat zone. Of course, the most important remark made by Trump during the visit was that he has no plans to withdraw US forces from Iraq.

He added, “In fact, we could use this (Iraq) as the base if we wanted to do something in Syria.” These three developments through the month of December are inter-related. The NMI holds big potential to be the vehicle for the US’ regional strategies. For a start, the NMI is important for transatlantic relations. It addresses one of the main causes of the tension between the US and Europe the alliance’s engagement in the Middle East.

Historically, the alliance’s command structure and military capabilities were developed to ensure effective deterrence of the former Soviet Union and the European states feared that its involvement in the Middle East would have negative consequences for security in Europe.

This led to the development of flexible mechanisms in the post-Cold War era that support so-called out-of-area operations relying on European structures, “coalitions of the willing”, and cooperation with partner countries. Yet, the European countries’ efforts were scattered, and were often overlooked by the US, leading to greater pressure on NATO involvement.

More support

The NMI, on the contrary, is a full-bodied mission appearing in the Middle East for the first time. It duplicated the model of the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. Thus, NMI also may lead to a more even distribution of security-related costs between the European members of the alliance and the US. This is indeed an important consideration for Trump. The NMI means more support from the US’ allies to stabilize the situation in the Middle East (which, Trump has pointed out, impacts Europe’s security too.)

Above all, one of the principal objectives of the NMI will be to provide a platform for building consensus within the western alliance on further adaptation to the foreign and security policy challenges emanating from Russia. Indeed, from 2014, NATO has set up a hub at its Naples headquarters to coordinate regional activities crucial for maintaining security in its southern operation area (which includes the Middle East.) That is to say, while the NMI may be presented as additional support for the fight against terrorism and uncontrolled migration, it can only strengthen political cohesion amongst members who would have otherwise had different threat perceptions.

How does all this add up? There is a saying that every US president in modern times has started a war. Does the NMI become the harbinger of an expanded US intervention in Syria and Iraq  something which the US’ regional allies (Israel, in particular) have been seeking? Indeed, Trump’s recent visit to Iraq against the backdrop of the launch of the NMI marked a defining moment.

The Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said he was informed about Trump’s impending visit in the morning and he set out two conditions. “First, he (Trump) shall land on Iraqi land and be given an Iraqi reception like any other foreign official. Second, there shall be an agenda with specific matters and a short meeting.”

However, Trump arrived at al-Assad air base in the evening and stayed about three and a half hours. He had no face-to-face meeting with Iraqi officials and only held a phone call with Abdul-Mahdi. Interestingly, Abdul-Mahdi sounded testy. “There are talks about the visit of President Trump to a US base. This is wrong. There is no US base in Iraq. There are only Iraqi bases where some US and non-US soldiers are present,” he said. No doubt, chancelleries in Paris, Berlin and Moscow  and, most certainly, Ankara, Tel Aviv and Tehran  would be sensing that a paradigm shift is underway.

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