US Special Forces train in counter-ISIS exercises at al-Tanf garrison in Syria near the borders of Iraq and Jordan. Photo: Staff Sgt. Jacob Connor | US 5th SFG (Airborne)
As an anti-ISIS coalition member, Baghdad cannot unilaterally build diplomatic ties with Kurdish and Arab groups controlling security in parts of northern Syria.
Hishim al-Hashimi, an advisor to Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Salim al-Jabouri, told Rudaw English there are a number of intelligence agendas on the border, and that the fate of the border area is in the hands of United States and Russia. “It is a very complicated matter,” he said.
No present force — not the US-led coalition, Iran, Russia or Syria — can take any decision unilaterally, Hashimi explained.
Speaking on the sidelines of the IDIRIS Dialogues on Iraq’s Economy in Transition, held in Sulaimani on Sunday, the analyst said Iraq is part of the international coalition formed to defeat ISIS, and therefore cannot broker relations on its own with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
“Their relations should be organized in the framework of the international coalition. Iraq is a member of the international coalition led by the United States,” said Hashimi.
Through supporting Iraqi Security Forces, including Kurdish Peshmerga, and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mixed umbrella group of mostly Kurdish YPG fighters, the US-led coalition has effectively cleared ISIS from east of the Euphrates in Syria through most of central and northern Iraq, and the Kurdistan Region..
“The bordering areas from Safouk to Rukban are … under the control of the United States and its allies. Iraq cannot improve its relations with Syria or do otherwise,” he added.
The United States has tried coordinate with Iraq's Shiite-dominated government and military, while maintaining partnerships with the Kurdish YPG in Syria, and the Kurdistan Region's Peshmerga in northern Iraq, with the overall all goal of "defeating ISIS."
Asked about the ongoing role of the United States in Iraq, Hashimi said Baghdad would like US troops to remain in the long term.
“The Iraqi government wants US troops to stay in this area for a long time. It is in the interests of Iraq to demand these troops do not withdraw to this hot timeline,” he said.
Hashimi’s remarks match recent congressional testimony by General Joseph Votel, the US commander for CENTCOM. Votel had explained that the US presence in Syria — without a UN Security Resolution — was militarily necessary because in order to protect Iraq “we had to address ISIS in Syria” and "the Syrian regime is unwilling or unable to address this particular threat.”
The US presence serves three effective purposes: preventing an 'ISIS 2.0', keeping a thumb on Iran expansionism (diplomatic and via proxies), and still having geopolitical leverage in the region where leaders like Erdogan speak openly about a return to Ottoman dominance.
“The presence of these forces will prevent [the creation of a] Shiite crescent,” Hashimi added, referring to an arc of territory across the Middle East region drawn into the Iranian sphere of influence, an eventuality long resisted by Western countries and Israel.
The Iraqi government confirmed in early February that the US military presence in the country will be drawn down following Baghdad’s declaration of victory over ISIS in December. However, some Shiite politicians like Muqtada al-Sadr have called for all US troops to leave, citing Abadi's declaration of the defeat of ISIS in Iraq.
Up to 60 percent of US forces could soon be withdrawn. According to a Pentagon report in November, there were 8,892 US troops in Iraq as of last September. The planned reduction would leave a force of roughly 4,000.
On Sunday, a Peshmerga general stated seven ISIS militants were killed by coalition airstrikes near Makhmour, a disputed or Kurdistani area claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil. Kurdish forces pulled out of the strategic town and base following the October 2017 incursion by Iraqi forces and Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries.