Redressing Balances in Iraq

While the focal point of the international politics is the Syrian war and searches for political solutions, the balances are redressed in Iraq, which will influence the regional and international politics. The codes of politics are written again in Iraq. This is directly related to both Iraqi domestic and foreign policy.

Considerable progress was made in the operation to rescue Mosul, launched on 17 October 2016, with the support of the coalition forces formed under US leadership in order to fight ISIS. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stated on 24 January 2017 that the east of Mosul was completely cleared from ISIS. On 19 February, an operation was launched in the west of Mosul. Although Iraqi security forces partially advanced in this region, this operation seems to last longer when compared to the operation in the east. There are several reasons which create this impression.

Firstly, there are many more settlements and compact urbanization exists in the west of Mosul even though the surface of this part of the city is smaller than that of the east. This makes it more difficult for Iraqi security forces to enter the neighbourhoods.

The population is higher in the west of the city. It is mentioned that between 750 thousand and 1 million people live in the region. Iraqi security forces should act more carefully for the prevention of civil death. This decelerates the operation. Furthermore, it is said that the number of ISIS members in the west of Mosul is much higher than that in the east of the city. It is also claimed that ISIS, which caused Iraqi security forces to lose time in the east, makes comprehensive preparations against the operation to be launched in the west of Mosul.

Even if the west of Mosul is completely reclaimed by Iraqi security forces, it is of utmost importance to completely ensure stabilized security in Mosul and generally in Iraq since the security and the balance of politics in Iraq are interwoven and there is continuously deepening political instability.


US in the Search of Regional Balance

In the current regional balance, the effects of the situation in Syria, Iran’s moves in Iraq and the roles of such actors as Russia, the USA, Turkey and Saudi Arabia also upset the balance in the Iraqi politics. Having given rein to Russia in Syria, the USA wants to keep Iraq under control. Therefore, it is seen that the USA resolutely support al-Abadi government in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. Besides having increased the number of soldiers in Iraq, the USA also makes room for its regional allies in Iraq. There are still some 6 thousand US soldiers in the country.  

In his statements, the newly-elected US President Donald Trump clearly indicates that he sets the fight against ISIS as a priority. Trump frequently underlines that he will take part in this fight “with his friends in the region.” Indeed, recently developing relations between Iraqi central government and Turkey and Saudi Arabia are one of the signs. At this point, it appears that the USA forces Iraq to soften ties with the countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia which maintain good relations with the USA in this regional balance.

It is possible to say that the USA is in search of a regional balance in Iraq since Iranian influence in Iraq puts the USA in a difficult situation. Therefore, the USA wants to increase the influence of Turkey and Saudi Arabia in Iraq. Considering that Turkey is also willing to build good relations with Iraq, this is a positive situation for Turkey.

Turkey tries to adopt an egalitarian approach for all groups in Iraq. Therefore, it does not want to be on one side. It is possible to indicate that Turkey will gradually further the relations with Iraqi central government as soon as the latter has a stable attitude.

However, it is doubtful whether Saudi Arabia is as willing as Turkey to improve the relations with Iraq. It is mentioned that Iraqi radical Sunni groups do not want Saudi Arabia to have closer ties with the Iraqi government. However, the US position forces Saudi Arabia to improve the relations with Iraq. Indeed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia Adil al-Jubeir visited Iraq in February 2017, for the first time after 2003 and met with al-Abadi and his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Jaafari. This visit was drawn great interest. It was announced to the public opinion that the main item of the agenda was “the fight against terrorism” in the meetings, which identifies with Trump’s statements.


How influential is Iran in Iraq?  

However, the most compelling situation that the USA faces in Iraq is Iranian influence. Having an undeniable political influence in Iraq, Iran has become a significant power in the field, also with its influence on al-Hashd al-Shaabi and the militia in the post-ISIS period.  

Besides putting Iraqi central government in a politically compelling situation, Iran makes an appearance with its force in the field. Even though Haider al-Abadi tries to control al-Hashd al-Shaabi by involving it in Iraqi security forces upon a law adopted in the Iraqi parliament, different militia apart from al-Hashd al-Shaabi maintain their presence and influence in the field. This leads to a big problem for Iraqi central government. Indeed, in addition to their armed forces, these groups take administrative and political steps in the regions where they are influential. Even though it is stipulated under the law on al-Hashd al-Shaabi that these groups will not be involved in the politics under any circumstances, the militia clearly indicates that they will take part in the Iraqi politics in the future. Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the group called Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, one of the largest and most efficient groups in Iraq, clearly states that they will enter the politics.  

On the other hand, it is mentioned that religious splits start to become visible among al-Hashd al-Shaabi groups. Some of the groups in al-Hashd al-Shaabi support Iranian religious leader Ali Khamenei whereas some others side with the most prominent Shiite religious leader in Iraq Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This situation is the repercussion of differences of views between Najaf in Iraq and the Shiite religious basin in Qom, Iran. There are groups which protect both religious leaders. The conflict between Najaf and Qom is discussed in depth behind closed doors since a large population of the Iraqi Shiite is disturbed by the views regarding all Shiite as “Iranians”.  

Haider al-Abadi does not treat Iran as closely as Nouri al-Maliki did under his terms of office as Prime Minister, which disturbs Iran. Therefore, Iran appears to keep al-Abadi under constant pressure through al-Hashd al-Shaabi groups and politicians, such as al-Maliki, who are in close contact with it. Therefore, the USA has difficulties in consolidating the Shiite groups which constitute the majority in Iraq as it did after 2003.  


Kurds, stability and balances

Similar splits and conflicts continue among Kurdish groups in Iraq. It seems that the balances are upset in Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is maybe the biggest project that the USA built in Iraq in the post-2003 period. Although Masoud Barzani, who holds the executive power in his hand in KRG, sometimes touches upon his discourse of independence, he has started to lose ground. Iran puts Masoud Barzani in a difficult situation through PUK and Gorran movement. The USA, on its part, looks for stability and control in KRG with the help of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey is also disturbed by the destabilization in KRG since the developments in Iraq directly affects Turkey. Therefore, Turkey does not want to see instability resulting from KRG or Iraqi central government. However, it is seen that Iran also tries to benefit from the power vacuum emerging due to the instability. That is why the USA makes efforts to fill this power vacuum either by itself or through its partners.

It can be said that the USA has declared international mobilization for Iraq. The recent activities of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) are one of the signs. It appears that the UNAMI takes active and result-oriented steps notably in ensuring social compromise and peace in Iraq. At this point, it is possible to say that the USA has put all the means in place in order to help al-Abadi government survive.

The USA tries to take steps in order to initiate a political process which it can lead with the support of the regional countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, before the general elections which are supposed to be held at least in February 2018. Iran, on its part, acts in a deal-breaking dynamism. However, this destabilizing situation lays a financial burden on Iran as well.

Trump’s soft messages to Russia and the signs of harmony with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Gulf states may put Iran in a difficult situation in the Middle East. This may push Iran to follow a more aggressive foreign policy. Iraq will be one of the first countries which will pay the cost of this policy. Therefore, it will be one of the most important factors of stability in Iraq if this country pursues balanced politics beyond regional polarizations.