Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi smiled as he met King Salman of Saudi Arabia on October 22. Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS was in Riyadh as well with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson. “With Secretary Tillerson to welcome historic opening and now strengthening ties between Iraq and KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia],” he wrote on October 21.
The Iraq-Saudi alliance is meant to anchor what may be a broader involvement of Saudi Arabia, not only in Iraq but also in eastern Syria. If that materializes over the coming year it would signal to Iran that there is a competing “crescent” of influence bisecting their land corridor which encompasses Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. This all hinges on whether America’s game-plan for Baghdad comes to fruition and Iraq is pried loose from Iran’s vast influence. For US policy- makers, talk of empowering a “nationalist” Iraq and dismissing Iran’s role as either exaggerated or non-existent is currently more rhetoric than reality.
Creating an Iraq-Saudi alliance has been a special project of President Donald Trump’s administration – and McGurk has played a key role. Although his mission is to be the US envoy to the global coalition fighting ISIS, which includes some 70 countries, he often tweets about Saudi Arabia and Iraq. “Breakthrough diplomacy over last 9 months by secretary Tillerson, Iraqi, Saudi leaders. Vital to post-ISIS stabilization in region,” he wrote on October 22. He seeks to highlight comments by the Saudi foreign minister Adel el-Jubeir and remarks by Abadi on Saudi Arabia, including mundane details like Abadi receiving an invitation to Riyadh. He even tweeted about the first Saudi flight to land in Baghdad since the Gulf War.
The US global coalition against ISIS is correctly starting to think about the post-ISIS future. Washington failed to create long-term stability in Iraq after the ‘Surge’ in 2007, when US troop levels were increased to defeat the mostly Sunni-Arab insurgency. Planners would like to avoid that failure this time.
They also pay lip-service to reducing Iranian influence in Iraq. On October 22 Tillerson called on Iranian-backed militias, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) that were organized in 2014 to fight ISIS, to return to their homes now that the war was winding down.
The next day the US secretary quickly flew to Baghdad for the second meeting with Abadi in 36 hours to clarify his comments.
Abadi’s allies among the Iranian-backed Shia militias had been cold to the US. One militia leader named Qais al-Khazali claimed it was US forces that “should get ready to get out of our country.” The Iraqi prime minister was circumspect, telling the US that the militias are part of the government. He also told The Independent that there are only 30 Iranian advisers in the whole of Iraq. Militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, whom Washington views as a terrorist, told the AP on October 30 that the PMUs would remain to “defend Iraq.”
To remove the stumbling block of the Shia militias, the US hoped to assuage Baghdad by turning a blind eye as US-trained Iraqi forces rolled into Kirkuk and attacked Kurdish Peshmerga over the last two weeks. This significantly reduced the autonomous Kurdish region’s control over oil, borders and territory, potentially crippling the region that had been a US ally in Iraq.
The US is looking to the future of Syria as well. “The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. The only issue is how that should come about,” Tillerson told reporters in Geneva on October 26. On October 19 Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan was in eastern Syria with McGurk to meet with the Raqqa Civil Council to discuss post-ISIS plans for the area.
Al-Sabhan is not known for keeping his views to himself. In September, according to the Saudi TV news channel Al-Arabiya, he called Hezbollah the “party of Satan”. In 2016 he caused controversy as the Saudi ambassador to Iraq for condemning the role of Shia militias and Iranian influence. He left that post to resume his current one as Gulf Affairs Minister.
The US work with al-Sabhan as well as Trump’s outreach to Saudi Arabia during the Arab Islamic American Summit in May paint a picture of the larger goal, which Trump laid out in mid-October, of rolling back Iranian influence.
The question is how to accomplish that. The US seeks a slow moving full-court press against Iran in the region, which means delicately balancing its goals in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere. This includes pressure on Israel, such as a recent report on Ynet saying that the US encouraged Israel to move slowly on a Jerusalem expansion bill because of Saudi influence.
If the Americans think they have a game plan to encourage the blocking of Iran’s drive for hegemony by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, eastern Syria and Lebanon, there are still many things that can go wrong. For one, the weakening of the Kurdistan Regional Government could jeopardize the route to supply Syrian Democratic Forces via Faysh Khabur. Will the US seek to use another route, such as Rabiah, which Iraqi forces took from the Kurds in October? What about Turkey’s opinion on developments in the area? Many questions remain, but it seems that Riyadh is making moves to implement long-term policy in the region, after years of frustration.