Iraq is not Syria. Is Trump listening?

American withdrawal from Syria will remove a curb on nefarious Iranian activity in the region.

By Meghan L. O'Sullivan (Geopolitix)

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Published: Thu 27 Dec 2018, 6:45 PM

Last updated: Thu 27 Dec 2018, 8:51 PM

The move of US President Donald Trump to visit Baghdad on Wednesday is a small, good one, amid a week of calamitous decisions. The press will understandably highlight the time that Trump spends with US troops. Yet a key objective of the trip will have been to shore up the new Iraqi government's confidence in the US, as Iraqi officials must be high on the list of those shocked by the president's recent decisions to rapidly withdraw US forces from Syria and Afghanistan. Perhaps the president has realised that his administration has some hard work to do if there is any hope of keeping his latest determinations from dramatically strengthening Iran.
The Middle East is a complicated place, where generations of American presidents and policymakers have struggled to prioritise competing interests, balance delicate relationships and manage inevitable trade-offs. Yet Trump's actions and words - at least until last week - made it clear that his highest priority was on containing and punishing Iran in an effort to get Teheran to the negotiating table to reach a new, sweeping agreement on both its nuclear programme and its other destabilising behavior in the region. Moreover, the focus on Iran has put the new government in Baghdad in unnecessary and challenging situations, at a time when Washington should be making every investment in its success. Nevertheless, while one might not have agreed on the wisdom of making Iran so central to US foreign policy in the Middle East, at least the above tradeoffs could be debated around policy views and threat assessments. Serious professionals could disagree. This is no longer the case. Trump, in his recent announcement to draw down troops from Syria and Afghanistan, is taking steps that work against all of his professed goals with Iran - for no apparent gain elsewhere.
First, an American withdrawal from Syria will remove a curb on nefarious Iranian activity in the region and open up new opportunities for Iran to embed itself in various countries there. The US presence in Syria, although small, has helped curb the activities of Iran and its ally Hezbollah. It has also helped frustrate Iran's ability to establish a land bridge connecting Iran to the Mediterranean and, as a result, has limited Iranian regional interventions. With the US vacating Syria, Iran will now be well positioned to compete for territory currently held by US partners, and Hezbollah will be able to make a stronger stand near Israel.
Second, the withdrawal will make achieving the administration's declared goal of a tougher, more comprehensive agreement with Teheran all but unimaginable. Getting Tehran to meet a fraction of Secretary of State Michael Pompeo's "12 demands" - including a full withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria - was always going to be tough.
But American diplomats will be particularly challenged to produce Iranian concessions in a situation where the United States has even less leverage due to the withdrawal of its troops. American influence in the region will also be weakened, and Iran's enhanced, by the probable outcome in Afghanistan. If Trump is willing to jeopardise US interests to change the news cycle, perhaps a country with diplomats as clever and far-sighted as those in Iran can manipulate the president to agree to arrangements that actually serve Iran's long-term interests in the region? Iran would have nothing to lose in exploring this possibility and could gain short-term sanctions relief from the process.
The tragedy of Trump's withdrawal announcements goes far beyond US strategy with Iran, to affect the security of America's allies and partners in Europe and the Middle East, the lives of millions on the ground, and American standing globally. What can be done to mitigate this disaster? It seems likely that the broad contours of the US withdrawal are not negotiable; departing Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat Daesh, would have not resigned had they thought the withdrawal could be reversed. However, in the implementation there is always a significant opportunity to shave the edges off a misguided strategy. For instance, those responsible for drawing down troops in Afghanistan and Syria could seek to define withdrawals as boots on the ground, as opposed to all military support. This might enable the US to continue to play the absolutely vital role of air power to those we support in both Syria and Afghanistan.
In addition, the timeline for troop withdrawal could be broken into phases and extended, and potentially could involve some conditions-based benchmarks.
Crucially, in the run-up to any withdrawal, the US should seek to secure agreements from countries like Turkey to stay engaged in the fight against the remnants of Daesh. Finally, the US must clarify its relationship with Baghdad and underscore its willingness to leave a US troop presence there longer. Trump's words, as he stood in Baghdad on Wednesday, seemed geared to at least begin to chip away at this list. If only the words of the American president held the weight they once did.
Meghan L. O'Sullivan is a professor of international affairs at Harvard Kennedy School.

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