What is NATO’s New Mission in Iraq?

20.01.2019 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The newly launched ‘NATO Mission in Iraq’ has a clear geo-political underpinning to it which aims to disturb the delicate edifice of peace that Russia, Turkey and Iran have been building for last two years or so. Although the new mission has been announced at a time when the US president has already announced a potential withdrawal of US troops from Syria, the new mission rather explains the counter-narrative of ‘no policy change’ that the various US officials have been building ever since Trump’s announcement of troop withdrawal. The new NATO Mission in Iraq is thus a plan according to which the US is going to shift its base of regional geo-politics from Syria, where the Russians, Turks and Iranians have already established their own stronghold, to Iraq, a country that has still not recovered from the damages inflicted on it first by the US invasion and then by ISIS. Iraq, accordingly, is going to become the new theatre of regional geo-politics.

Its first glimpse came in December last year when NATO Mission in Iraq organized an “introduction Event” at the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, where, as the press release they issued showed, a “new iteration of a long-standing relationship” between NATO and Iraq, one that will bring together “expertise and best practice in security/defence sector reform, institution building and training and education from the entire Alliance and its partners” was put forward to various “key leaders from across the Iraqi Security and Defence sector. They included the Iraqi Chief of Staff, General Othman Al-Ghanimi.” Representatives from other various international entities and organizations such as the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, the European Union Advise Mission in Iraq, the United Nations Assistance Mission Iraq, and the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq and Diplomatic Missions were also present.

Unsurprisingly, the new mission has been endorsed by the Iraqi military command, leading Trump to make a “surprise visit” to a US military base in Iraq, situated between the borders of Iraq and Syria, symbolising how the US was not just shifting its focus from Syria to Iraq, but also how the US would be dealing with Syria—and in Syrian with Russia, Turkey and Iraq—from its military bases in Iraq.

Accordingly, it was quite unsurprising to see Donald Trump “changing his mind” about the region after his Christmas visit to Iraq. In his remarks to reporters after the visit, he even admitted that he felt better about the situation after talking to commanders in the theatre instead of officials in Washington. Of course, the most important remark was the one about not withdrawing US forces from Iraq. On the contrary, Trump was quick to made it clear that, “we could [rather] use this [Iraqi territory] as the base if we wanted to do something in Syria.”

Accordingly, and quite unsurprisingly, the change of mind has led to redeployment of US troops from Syria to Iraq. The intended withdrawal has already given way to new deployment rather than actual withdrawal, speaking volumes about Donald Trump’s so-called decreasing “patience” over the US military involvement in the Middle East.

Mike Pompeo, who was recently on a visit to nine Middle Eastern countries, also made a visit to Iraq. The purpose of Pompeo’s visit was not just to ‘reassure’ the US’ regional allies of the continuation of US regional presence, but also to share with them the new strategy that involved a military manoeuvre from Syria to Iraq. This way the US hopes to stay relevant in the region, although there are a number of problems that the US’ future plans are facing.

But the new plan itself has certainly been launched. Whereas the Arab states are embracing Syria to seek greater presence in the form of aid and investment to ‘reconstruct’ the country, the US, in quite a subtle fashion, re-militarising Iraq in a way that would re-configure regional geo-politics.

France, which is also under pressure to withdraw its troops from Syria, is following the US in its footsteps. Just a few days ago, Iraq had another western visitor, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who also announced that France is committing 1 billion euros (US$1.15 billion) for Iraq’s reconstruction after the war against the ISIS. When seen in the context of US redeployment in Iraq, France’s announcement speaks more about and reaffirms how Iraq is becoming the centre of regional geo-politics with an aim to counter-balance the Russian and Iranian influence.

There is as such a significant shift taking place in the region, and the epicentre of this shift is Iraq. Therefore, while peace may return to Syria and the war-torn country may experience political stability, there is little to no gainsaying that the US isn’t planning to ‘abandon’ the region. Although the US ability to actually influence the region would remain limited not just because there are many other strong actors in the region and the US is only of them, but also because even if Iraq is to become a new base of US operations, the US is hardly the only country to have strong ties with Iraq. Iran has already started to make its own moves, and it is only a matter of time that other regional players, including Russia, will make necessary adjustments. The US is, therefore, only kickstarting another extended and expanded period of intervention, something that countries like Saudi Arabi and Israel would deeply cherish.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.