TSC IntelBrief: A No-Win U.S. Strategy for Iraq
Bottom Line Up Front
• On October 26, Iraqi security forces, supported by Iranian-backed militias, clashed with Kurdish peshmerga fighters north of Mosul.
• The Iraqi government appears intent on seizing control of all border crossings, with serious consequences for both the Kurds and the U.S campaign in Syria.
• Fighting at Kurdistan’s Fishkabour crossing would disrupt the U.S. military’s main land access route into northern Syria.
• Limiting U.S. influence in northern Syria would be an important outcome for Iran’s regional strategy.
Tensions and sporadic fighting between the Iraqi federal government and the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan have grown more intense and consequential with new reports of fighting north of Mosul. Repercussions of the September referendum for full Kurdish independence now include the possibility U.S. forces may lose control of the Fishkabour crossing, their main land access route into northern Syria. Kurdish forces also risk losing ground they’ve held since 2014, and in some areas, since 2003. While fears of growing Iranian hegemony as Iraq’s ‘puppet master’ are often exaggerated, the Iranian-supported Iraqi militias, now playing a major role both in the contested city of Kirkuk, and in areas north of Mosul, are a real challenge for U.S. interests across the region.
The U.S. finds itself in a no-win situation regarding both the ongoing fighting and national tensions in Kurdistan. For 13 years, the U.S. has held to a strategic goal of a unified federal Iraq with meaningful autonomy for the Kurds, who have been a more reliable and effective partner for U.S. regional interests than the Baghdad government. The U.S. pressured the Kurds to hold off on their September independence referendum, telling authorities in Irbil — as they have so many times before — that the timing wasn’t right for such a move. With Iraqi state forces now on the march in Kurdistan, a sizable Kurdish faction now resents what they see as their betrayal or abandonment by the U.S.— much as they did when the Kurds responded to U.S. calls to rise up against Saddam Hussein in 1991, only to see the U.S. pull its support, resulting in a vicious crackdown by Baghdad. Meanwhile, in Washington, officials including Senator John McCain argue the U.S. has essentially squandered the good will and support of the Kurds for a strategic goal of a strong Baghdad-centric country that will likely not act in the U.S. national interest.
While the Kurds plead for U.S. intervention with Baghdad in the latest fighting, Washington is watching as Kurdish control over key border regions (and possibly beyond) are being supplanted by Iraqi forces that include Iranian-backed militias. As relations between the U.S. and Iran will likely continue to deteriorate, the U.S. mission in Iraq as well as Syria may well become far more difficult.
The U.S. and Iran have worked indirectly together in Iraq in the struggle against the so-called Islamic State. The U.S. provides military support for Baghdad, which then supports militias backed by Iran — all for the urgent mission of rolling back the Islamic State’s territorial gains. As that fight winds down, the underlying tensions and animosity between Tehran and Washington will almost certainly increase. The latest military moves in Kurdistan threaten to hamper U.S. influence in northern Syria, especially if the U.S. loses full access to the vital Fishkabour crossing. Their backdoor collaboration in Iraq aside, the U.S. and Iran are in complete opposition in Syria. Limiting U.S. influence there via a diminished Kurdish and U.S. presence at strategic access points would be an important outcome for Tehran’s regional strategy.
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