WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – A surprising consensus emerged at a Hudson Institute seminar Monday on post-Islamic State (IS) Iraq and Syria: the US is losing.
That was the position of all four panelists in Monday’s discussion at the conservative institute. The problem, as they saw it, was grounded in the extreme reluctance of President Barack Obama’s engagement in Iraq and Syria, starting in 2014, to fight IS.
As one panelist, Jennifer Cafarella, a Senior Intelligence Planner at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), told Kurdistan 24, “One of the ironies of the Trump administration is that it has actually continued President Obama’s strategy” against IS “with some small changes on the margins.”
As Hillel Fradkin, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, put it, the basic problem is that the US began with no objective beyond the defeat of IS, and it has “none now.”
Other parties to the conflict, including Iran, Russia, and Turkey, have had a clearer vision.
Iran has managed to build its land bridge to the Mediterranean, by using the Shia militias that it supports in Iraq, along with its alliance with the Syrian regime.
Michael Pregent, an expert on Iraq and an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute, explained that he had plotted the locations of those militias and the territory they now occupy, on the basis of an ISW report. That territory is what now constitutes Iran’s land bridge.
Ammar Kahf, Executive Director of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, explained that after the defeat of IS, “Syria has witnessed a huge increase” in Iranian power and influence.
Nahro Zagros, Vice President of the Kurdistan Region’s Soran University, expanded on that point, citing the major population transfers that have taken place in Syria. Large numbers of people who are not Syrian have been given Syrian citizenship.
Both Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have been involved in bringing the non-Syrians into Syria.
Similar developments are occurring in Kirkuk, where the Shia militias are bringing Arabs into the city. And, Turkey is doing much the same in Afrin: using population transfers to bring political change.
As Pregent noted, the strategy is to “change the demographics” and after that, hold elections to provide legitimacy to what is essentially ethnic cleansing.
Zagros also described another Iranian gain. Tehran has won control of the borders of the Kurdistan Region and can now determine who enters the Region.
Airports in the Kurdistan Region were recently reopened to international air traffic, but Iraqis now control them, as well as the border crossing in the triangle between Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.
“When we say Iraq” today, Zagros continued, “we mean militias that are aligned with Iran. So, the main borders are controlled by Iran.”
“By not supporting the Kurds,” the US is losing leverage, he said.
The panelists also decried the Turkish assault on Afrin and Ankara’s threats to other Kurdish areas. They felt that this, too, reflected a lack of US leadership, vision, and planning for the area after IS.
Zagros suggested that the US had missed an important chance to draw the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG) away from the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—which Turkey, the US, and EU all consider a terrorist organization.
“When the YPG was part of the Syrian opposition,” Zagros told Kurdistan 24, “they really tried to shift away from the PKK.” However, the US “didn’t support them all the way to go through the process.”
“They were really trying to reconcile with the other Syrian opposition parties” and “also with the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is seen as a Turkish ally,” Zagros said. But, the US “failed to support them in the process.”
The panelists all had a negative view of Iran and thought the US needed to be tougher on Tehran. However, they suggested a different priority for combatting Iran than the Trump administration seems to have.
The Iranian nuclear deal is a bad agreement. However, as Fradkin remarked, “It’s not the most urgent issue. The most urgent issue is what happens right now in Iraq and Syria.”
Or as Cararella put it, “The US needs to recognize that Syria and Iraq are increasingly theaters where great power conflict is most likely, if not already unfolding.”
It is quite possible that Russia will use its “instruments of power to support the Iranians to confront” the US, she explained, emphasizing, “We have thousands of American service men and women at risk in Iraq and Syria.”
But, the US has no strategy “to translate their hard-earned gains” and “their sacrifices into an enduring outcome,” she cautioned, before concluding, “That’s just not acceptable American leadership.”
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany