Three years ago, in 2014, the “Islamic State” terrorist group (ISIS) breached the deserted frontier between Iraq and Syria: its bulldozers crossed from the Iraqi borders on Sinjar into al-Hasaka province with US-made Humvees captured during the occupation of Mosul. Just a week ago, hundreds of US Special Operation Forces crossed Iraq into Syria with their Humvees in military convoy, following the same ISIS path breaching the British and French division of the Ottoman Empire secret agreement during the First World War by the two diplomats Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. The US President Donald Trump didn’t just ask his troops to cross the borders (without asking the permission of the central governments in Baghdad and Damascus): he fulfilled what the same ISIS leader Ibrahim Aw’wad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al Samarrae’e, aka Abu Du’aa, aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi prophesied when he said: “ This blessed advance (of the Caliphate militants from Iraq into Syria) will not stop until we knock the last nail into the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy”.
In October 2014, Turkey allowed the Iraqi Peshmerga Kurds to cross Suruc, a Turkish area to join the Syrian Kurds in Kobane (Ain al-Arab) and help drive out ISIS who occupied most of the city. This time, the US forces didn’t need to ask permission following the defeat of ISIS in Mosul and Sinjar. The US convoy crossed Iraq into al-Hasaka, Syria, where the US maintains several airports and a military base in the north-east of Bilad al-Sham under the cover of “fighting terrorism”.
How did the US plan succeed in Iraq and partially in Syria to date?
Before the battle of Mosul mid 2016, the Iraqi military and the Hashd al-Sha’bi Units leadership (Popular Mobilisation Units that are officially part of the security forces) suggested to the chief of the armed forces, the Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, to liberate Babil, Wasit, Karbalaa, and Diyala as a first plan, followed by the ring of Baghdad and Salahoddine as a second plan. The third step would be to liberate al-Anbar completely before Kirkuk and Nineveh. The two northern provinces were supposed to be the last areas to be liberated from ISIS.
According to decision makers in Baghdad, the US military command rejected the idea of fully liberating al-Anbar province and refused to offer any air and intelligence support if Nineveh (Mosul et al) was not liberated before Anbar. A compromise was reached to free Fallujah and Ramadi in al-Anbar and to leave the triangle al-Rutba, Ramadi, al-Qaem to the last, as long as the Hashd al-Sha’bi and the Iraqi security forces are not permitted to venture along the Syrian-Iraqi borders. The military leadership was aware of the US plan to have easy movement on the borders, push ISIS towards Syria by attacking Mosul first from the east (left Bank) and lift the pressure on the Iraqi Kurds by preventing ISIS from fleeing north and pushing these towards the west of Iraq, east of Syria. In the US mind, the battle of Nineveh may last years to defeat ISIS.
Had Baghdad decided to attack al-Anbar first, ISIS would have been dislodged from the Syrian borders and pushed all ISIS in free run towards Kurdistan. This act would have supported the President Bashar al-Assad’s Army by preventing further flock of ISIS militants into Syria and would have spoiled the US plan in taking al-Tanaf. Sinjar would have been under the Iraqi Army not the Kurds, and the borders with Syria would be under Hashd al-Sha’bi control preventing any US troop movement between the two countries. This would have allowed the Iraqi Army to advance towards Kirkuk, and Baghdad troops would have had access to Erbil to support the Iraqi Kurds and fight ISIS at the edge of the city.
The US rejected the plan categorically and Prime Minister Abadi had to bow to the American strongarm by creating a kind of compromise, choosing to continue enjoying the limited but useful US military Air and Intelligence support for Iraq in its war on terrorism. Actually Abadi doesn’t trust Tehran’s intention towards him in person, and believes some groups within al Hashd al-Sha’bi are totally dedicated to Iran rather than loyal to his command. Abadi is believed by some to be pro-American, whereas many groups within Hashd fought the US forces during their occupation in Iraq and today. Following the considerable military experience these have gathered during three years of fighting against ISIS, they are very much ready to fight the US forces in Iraq and spoil their pans to divide the country. Hashd is also willing to fight the Kurds if these decide to implement the expected results of the referendum that will definitely promote the independence of Kurdistan Iraq.
Prime Minister Abadi saw the bigger picture: Iraq has priority even if this would lead to the partition of Kurdistan. The government in Baghdad, as I learned from many decision makers in the Iraqi capital, will not use the military force against Erbil regardless their decision of independence. After all, Kurdistan has been enjoying autonomy for decades and its possible independence (as the Kurdish Leader Masoud Barzani is claiming setting a referendum on the 25th of September for this purpose) will liberate the central government in Baghdad from future financial obligation towards the Kurds.
But the crossing by US forces into al-Hasaka is an illegal act. However, it may become legal the day Kurdistan Iraq declares its independence followed by the Syrian Kurds independence in al-Hasaka. When the US officially recognises these two “states” (it has happened before in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia in the 90s), the US military presence in Syria becomes “official”. Actually the geographical location of Kurdistan Iraq makes sense when linked, under one nation, with Kurdistan Syria, even if both countries may not end up with a unified leadership due to their different ideology and objectives.
When Thomas Friedman wrote that the US should not fight ISIS because “its goal is to defeat Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria – plus its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies – and to defeat the pro-Iranian Shiite regime in Iraq, replacing both with a caliphate”, he was sharing a truthful moment: ISIS serves the interest of the United States of America. Friedman is in harmony with what the then US vice President Joe Biden wrote that “the idea is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralising it, giving each ethno-religious group – Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab – room to run its own affairs (..) a plan designed by the military for withdrawing and redeploying American Forces, and a regional nonaggression pact”.
In fact Premier Abadi (according to high-level sources in Baghdad) believes he will have the opportunity to create a balance within this already chaotic situation between Baghdad and Tehran by kicking out the US forces if Washington decides to divide Iraq. The alternative possibility is that Abadi will both justify and support the US military bases in Mesopotamia provided that Trump rejects the idea of splitting Iraq.
But Iran may not react immediately against the US plans to divide Iraq and Syria: the priority goes to defeating ISIS and the US proxies in al-Badiya (the Syrian semi-desert steppe) and to preventing the Kurds from reaching Deir al-Zour, al Mayadeen and south of Tabqah. The US is trying to establish with Russia more de-conflict zones in the north east, similar to the south, but these may only observe a temporary agreement. The “axis of the resistance” will never accept the presence of US troops in both Syria and Iraq, and it will support the Syrian tribes in the north to engage against the US proxies in the north and the south- east of Syria.
In Iraq, many voices are being raised against the US presence in the country, particularly following the defeat of ISIS in Mosul. Many Iraqi leaders are asking the Prime Minister to seek a total and immediate withdrawal of the US forces from Mesopotamia, especially as ISIS managed to proliferate in a sectarian setup, (encouraged by the US) which was absent before 2003. The battle of Mosul is over but the war to eliminate ISIS is still to be fought for another year in al-Anbar province and mainly around al-Qaem where ISIS is well established since 2003. To win this battle, Iraq needs to use the PMU (Hashd) and remove the US veto on these forces.
ISIS recruitment is in free fall: the “capital of the Caliphate” (Mosul) and the main base in Syria (Raqqah) are no longer available to receive new Mujahedeen in their “dream land”. The Islamic Golden age is no longer a reality for this group and its sympathisers around the globe. Therefore, it is almost inevitable that ISIS will become a group (like al-Qaeda) with no particular home to go to (but several caves to hide in).
The US plans in Syria and Iraq have another enemy: Turkey. Washington has prevented Ankara from taking part of the battle of Raqqah and is about to establish two Kurdish “states” on its borders, inviting the Kurds in Turkey to follow the same path.
The question remains: how can new Kurdistan states” survive with four countries surrounding it (Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran), all determined to do everything to neutralise a future Kurdish state in Mesopotamia and/or Bilad al-Sham? The Kurds really believe they can rely on two US and one British military bases in Kurdistan Iraq and on Saudi Arabia monies, and on six US military bases in the north of Syria to impose their “state”?
Changing the map of the Middle East may not be impossible, but sustaining it is another issue. The US is gathering more enemies in Iraq and Syria and its new friends in Iraq and Syria are less capable than its enemies to fulfil this ambitious plan with a US administration whose President is very concerned about keeping his own political head on his shoulders due to the internal attacks he is continuously facing. One thing is certain, this instability is not expected to end with the defeat of ISIS: it will be the beginning of another kind of instability, triggered by both states (US, Russia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey) and by non-state groups (ISIS and al-Qaeda).