Modern DiplomacyMarch 16, 2019
A U.S. Army M109A6 Paladin howitzer conducts a fire mission at Qayyarah West Airfield, Iraq. Army photo by Spc. Christopher Brecht
By Giancarlo Elia Valori
Over the last few days, particularly on March 6, new US troops arrived in Iraq. They in fact arrived in the Iraqi area of Al Anbar, leaving from bases located in both Israel and Jordan, particularly from the Mowaffaq Salti and H-4 air bases.
Nevertheless the US troops – quickly attacked by the Iraqi Shiites – probably arrived also from other bases outside Iraq.
Those US forces had the primary goal of quickly crushing an operation of Shiite brigades connected to Iran, but coordinated by the People’s Mobilization Forces that, albeit linked to Iran, are the political and military axis of the major groups elected to Parliament.
Moreover, last year, it was exactly the Iraqi legislative Assembly that adopted legislation making the Shiite militias an essential and official asset of the Iraqi political system.
The Hashd al-Shabi forces – in their new “civilian” group, Fatah, which is their new political alliance – have also become the second group in terms of seats in the election held last May.
The Hashd al-Shabi forces consist of at least 120,000 well-armed men, who were the first to declare victory on the Iraqi forces of Daesh-Isis – although we do not know yet to what extent this victory can be considered final.
It should also be recalled that, precisely with the recent election held in Iraq on May 12, 2018, almost all the traditional ethnic-religious fragmentation and tension among Iraqi voters have slackened.
The real cleavage among Iraqi political groups is now more focused on the defence of territorial interests and on the Welfare share to be transferred from the centre to the periphery than on the traditional “rift” between religious and ethnic groups.
Currently the real fragmentations are the internal and economic ones within the various political groups.
The precarious Iraqi government, however, is led by the Shiite leader, Adil Abdil Mahdi, a member of the party known as the “Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq” (ISCI), linked and derived directly from the old Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Shiite and Khomeinist organization founded in 2007 upon Imam Baqir al-Hakim’s initiative.
Also the Sunnis, however, gathered and supported their traditional electorate, especially within the rebalancing of financial transfers between their regions and the central State.
Moreover, the Kurds are increasingly present in the administration and in the central political system but – as can be easily imagined – to favour their autonomous welfare and international and Iraqi investments in Erbil and in their great province between Kirkuk and the non-Iraqi Kurdish areas.
Later, however, the Iraqi Shiite Prime Minister met with resistance even in his traditional Shiite bloc, among the “Sadrists” of the Sairoon Party and even in some Kurdish sectors.
Furthermore, with their Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Kurds already have 45 seats out of 100 and traditionally obtain many votes from the Christian and Turkmen minorities.
Certainly the economic and political relations with Turkey – which constantly acquires many of the Iraqi waters – are essential for both oil extraction and agriculture.
Another variable between Shiites, Kurds and the United States, as well as in the local relations among Russians.
Daesh-Isis, however, is coming back onto the scene, particularly in North-Western Iraq.
In all likelihood, however, the “Caliphate” does not intend to conquer the cities – which are currently difficult to hold for a long time – but, from now on, it wants to operate as a mobile guerrilla group, possibly with further artillery actions and proposing itself again as the main political-military actor of the Al-Anbar region.
It will be exactly the “Caliphate” to keep Iraq fragmented and weak. This is its primary strategic aim.
Even this particular Iraqi internal political set-up leads Iran to consider Iraq the most important strategic pawn of its future foreign policy, especially in the framework of its nuclear issue.
Certainly the nuclear reactors in Iran’s hands, but present on Iraq’s territory, would be the ideal solution for Iran.
It should also be recalled that Iran sets great store by Iraq, considering that this country is at the origin of the new “corridor” that -upon the de facto end of the clashes in Syria -will go from the internal areas of the Shiite Iraq to Syria up to Beirut and the Lebanese areas controlled by Hezbollah.
The statement made in July 2018 in relation to the United States by General Soleimani, the leader of the Al Qods militias of the Iranian Pasdaran, “We are near you, where you cannot even imagine…”is probably the key to understanding the current situation.
The visit paid by the Iranian President, Hassan Rohani, on March 6, 2019 is a further factor to understand the Iraqi situation and the region that US analysts define as Syraq.
The “reformist” President – according to the simplistic Western thinking – is sending a clear signal, above all to the United States, that the Shiite Iran values Iraq very much, mainly its de facto hegemony on it, but also the possibility that Iran immediately and directly clashes with the United States, right on the Iraqi ground, but only and solely where Iran wants.
The Iranian President has also said that Iraq is the primary solution “to bypass America’s unjust sanctions imposed on Iran”.
In this regard, we should also recall the “International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq”, held in Kuwait in March 2018.
Its main document, drawn up directly by the World Bank, envisages as many as 157 primary projects for a total value of 88.7 billion US dollars, 23 of which are short-term and the remaining ones are medium-long term projects.
Ii is worth recalling that Iraq is OPEC second largest oil producer and ranks fifth in terms of proven oil and gas reserves.
Hence the Saudi specific interest in the Kuwait International Conference, although Saudi Arabia has not yet credible points of reference in the Iraqi ruling class.
Iraq is the real stake between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the strategic key is the separation of military continuity between the Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Saudi Arabia, however, has already provided over one billion US dollars for aid and 500 million US dollars for export support. Also the Emirate of Qatar granted another billion dollars and Kuwait followed suit, while the United States itself promised as many as 3 billion dollars.
As can be easily imagined, everyone is interested in differentiating their support for Iraq and above all avoiding Iraq falling entirely into Iran’s hands.
It should be noted, however, that the 39 million inhabitants of present-day Iraq are increasing at a very quick pace (one million per year), which is certainly the fastest growth rate in the Middle East. It should also be recalled that the whole Iraqi social and economic system is characterized by the highest number of poor and unemployed people across the Middle East.
It is therefore obvious that Iran wants to acquire the Iraqi oil market in its entirety and use it – as a political and economic weapon – against the whole Sunni axis and particularly against the United States and its allies within OPEC.
In fact, after the Shiite forces’ attacks on some US military targets in Iraq – coincidentally carried out during Iranian President Rouhani’s visit – the United States immediately called back their forces in Israel and Jordan, as well as those in the Gulf, and – as always happens in these cases -it also alerted its military in Romania and Bulgaria.
The two groups that attacked the US forces on March 6 and later are directly linked to Iran.
It is a first militia called Kata’ib Hezbollah, while the other Shiite organization is known as Hasaib Ahl al-Ahq, i.e. the Khazali network.
Both organizations stem directly from the Lebanese Hezbollah.
The Kataib Hezbollah was founded by the Iranian Pasdaran and the military organization known as Al Quds Force, which is linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Hezbollah in the Lebanon was born from the will of Imam Khomeini, who considered the Shiite group “the light of his life”.
It should be recalled that Kataib is also one of the six groups that established the “People’s Mobilization Forces”, from which the current majority political bloc in Iraq stemmed.
The Khazali network is also a party in the Iraqi Parliament, with 15 representatives, who are said to be the result of electoral fraud. It was also officially established by the Al Quds Force and, during the war in Iraq, it organized over 6,000 attacks on US and Western targets.
Nevertheless the very recent operations against the US military – in clear connection with Rouhani’s visit and his declarations on the now unique Iranian hegemony on Iraq – were carried out exactly one day after the United States had imposed further sanctions, but against a third Iranian Shiite military network, namely Al-Nujaba.
More precisely, it is the Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba, an organization created in 2013, which has four brigades between Iraq and some cells hidden in the Gulf (hence the apparently obscure reference in the above quoted statement by General Soleimani), including the military group that is explicitly devoted to the anti-Israeli operations on the Golan Heights.
There is also an Al-Nujaba brigade carrying out special operations in Syria for Bashar al-Assad’s forces – a brigade equipped with several Russian T-72 tanks and, above all, Iranian missiles.
Furthermore, a very strong signal for the US armed forces came from the statements made by Iraqi parliamentarian Nessar al Rabee, linked to the Sadrist movement and, hence, having direct relations also with the quasi-majority currently in power in Iraq, who asked that “all foreign forces should leave the Iraqi territory” .
The Shiite Sadrist parliamentarian also added that this request would rescue Iraq from the “terrorist forces” that want to enter the country “under new labels”.
Hence clear language and terminology.
Moreover Prime Minister Al Mahdi stated he had spoken directly on the phone with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He also said that the United States can no longer legally establish their new bases on the Iraqi territory and added that the current US military presence is confined only to combating Isis-Daesh and training the Iraqi armed forces.
The United States, however, is repositioning itself on the border between Iraq and Syria and, particularly, in the Western area of the Al-Anbar province and among the Kurds of Kirkuk.
Nevertheless it is strange that, also for the Sadrists, this new composition of Iraqi Shiite forces comes after a long struggle of the Iraqi military and political Shiism against Iran’s increasingly heavier hegemony.
Initially quasi-enemies and certainly Iraqi “nationalists”, probably enemies of the Khomeinist doctrine of Velayat-e-Faqih, but currently increasingly linked to Iran’s ideologies and, above all, interests.
Hence the greater Iran’s economic and strategic reaction against the US denunciation of the nuclear agreement, the greater the Iranian strongly adverse presence against the United States in Iraq, an inevitable axis for opposing the US troops, who are withdrawing from Syria and repositioning themselves right on the border with Iraq and, above all, at the starting point of the Shiite “corridor” that already reaches the Lebanon through the Syrian-Israeli border.
Another essential factor of the Iranian strategy has recently been the organization of a fundamental meeting between Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – a meeting that took place in Tehran on February 27 last.
Bashar al-Assad is the only Middle East leader who “kissed the hand” of Iran’s Supreme Leader.
The primary signal of the meeting–again sent directly to the United States – is that Bashar al-Assad will never abandon Iran.
Are we sure, however, that this new collocation of relations between Iran and Syria is really ideal for the Russian Federation?
We will see at a later stage.
In his meeting with Rohuani, Bashar al-Assad also explicitly said that Syria will still be part of Iran’s “Resistance Axis” and currently also of all the guerrilla, terrorist and paramilitary entities that Iranians have so far organized between the Shiite areas and the covert structures operating in the Gulf Sunni world.
The issue of the Syrian-Iranian relationship also concerns the whole connection between Syria, Iran and Iraq, considering that – during Bashar al-Assad visit to Tehran – General Suleimani said – very clearly, as usual – “Our safest border is the one between our two countries and Iraq”.
Here is, in fact, the real problem at the core of Khamenei’s and Assad’s fears, as well as of the current Iraqi leaders’. Both Syria and Iran think they must absolutely avoid the United States being their stable pocket, a strong buffer zone in Syria, always connected to Israeli strong air operations in Syria and, in the future, between the Bekaa Valley and the Golan Heights towards the Iraqi areas and, possibly, even on the Iranian border.
For this reason, in both Assad’s and Khamenei’ statements and recent actions, there are strong signs that make us foresee a new great offensive inside Syria, a massive action that could hit both some remaining Sunni-Caliphate pockets, between Idlib and Deir-Ezzor, and above all the US areas (the El Tanf base) and, more precisely, some Israeli targets.
In fact, addressing to Israel, in mid-January 2019, General Soleimani said that the Jewish State must “greatly fear Iranian high-precision missiles” and that “in any case, Iran will keep all the military advisers and armed forces it deems appropriate”.
Hence a new area of contrast is emerging between the Jewish State and the Shiite world, while the true solution to the equation could be a de facto agreement between the United States and the Russian Federation to contain Iran and make Israel safe, also on the border between Israel and the Lebanon.
In fact, two days after the meeting between Assad and Ali Khamenei, Vladimir Putin met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Head of the Israeli Armed Forces, Tamir Hayman.
The Russian leader explicitly ensured to give a free hand – also in relation to the Russian presence in Syria and in other regions – to a possible Israeli attack against the Iranian positions in Syria.
Putin also asked Netanyahu to formally accept the Russian primary role in the Syrian “peace-building process”. Hence he implicitly asked Israel to avoid future attacks on Iranian targets in Syria being targeted to areas shared between Iran and Russia and, above all, to implicitly favour the Russian presence on the ground.
Obviously, the Iranian leaders are well aware of this and have therefore asked Bashar al-Assad to declare that any Israeli attack on Iranian targets in Syria will be considered a direct attack on Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
In their designs, this could force Russia to have a milder approach vis-à-vis Iran.
*About the author: Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France.”
Source: This article was published by Modern Diplomacy