The U.S. should recognize Iran and Russia as adversaries—and that Iraq isn’t a friend.
The headlines out of Syria are eye-catching: There are signs the Assad government may be planning another chemical attack. American pilots have struck forces threatening our allies and shot down a Syrian plane and Iranian-made drones. The probability of direct military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia has risen. Yet the coverage of these incidents and the tactical responses that have been suggested obscure the broader story: The slow-moving campaign against Islamic State is finally nearing its conclusion—yet major, long-range strategic issues remain unresolved.
The real issue isn’t tactical. It is instead the lack of American strategic thinking about the Middle East after Islamic State. Its defeat will leave a regional political vacuum that must be filled somehow. Instead of reflexively repeating President Obama’s errors, the Trump administration should undertake an “agonizing reappraisal,” in the style of John Foster Dulles, to avoid squandering the victory on the ground.
First, the U.S. ought to abandon or substantially reduce its military support for Iraq’s current government. Despite retaining a tripartite veneer of Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs, the capital is dominated by Shiites loyal to Iran. Today Iraq resembles Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, as the Soviet anaconda tightened its hold. Extending Baghdad’s political and military control into areas retaken from ISIS simply advances Tehran’s power. This cannot be in America’s interest.
Iraq’s Kurds have de facto independence and are on the verge of declaring it de jure. They fight ISIS to facilitate the creation of a greater Kurdistan. Nonetheless, the Kurds, especially in Syria and Turkey, are hardly monolithic. Not all see the U.S. favorably. In Syria, Kurdish forces fighting ISIS are linked to the Marxist PKK in Turkey. They pose a real threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity, even if it may seem less troubling now that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans have turned so profoundly contrary to the secular, Western-oriented vision of Kemal Atatürk.