Biden and Challenges to the American Strategy in Iraq

EPC | 09 Dec 2020

Iraq constituted one of the most important agenda items that were absent from the US election race in 2020, in contrast to previous elections in which it was, specifically since 2003, strongly present in the presidential debates or even in the statements of the candidates. This absence can be attributed to the fact that Iraq may constitute a secondary foreign policy issue for the US in the coming stage, and that other Middle Eastern affairs, including the Iranian nuclear agreement and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, constitute more urgent concerns. This raises a question about the extent of Iraq’s importance for the new US administration led by President Joe Biden. This paper is an attempt to shed light on the nature of the approach with which President Biden will deal with the Iraqi issue, and his future options.

A new US approach in Iraq?

The arrival of Joe Biden to the presidency of the US will have direct repercussions for the Iraqi interior, especially that Iraq has constituted an important arena of US escalation against Iran, particularly since the killing of the commander of the Quds Force Qasem Soleimani, in January 2020, by a US raid in the vicinity of Baghdad International Airport, and the ensuing escalation of missile attacks by the pro-Iran loyalist factions against US interests and headquarters in Iraq.

Under the new Democratic administration in Washington, a restructuring of the US policy in Iraq is expected to be witnessed, by prioritising political solutions to military ones, and dealing with the Iraqi situation in partial isolation from the Iranian case, while seeking to establish a truce with Iran, so that the US approach in Iraq would be successful. If the Biden administration manages to tame Iran in Iraq, it would in return succeed in taming the loyalist factions associated with Iran and continuously demanding the exit of US forces from Iraq, and in starting a new transitional phase.

While the Commander of the US Central Command General Kenneth McKenzie announced earlier that the US is on its way to withdraw part of its forces from Iraq by the end of 2020, with the other part remaining, regardless of who will win the elections, a change in this context is not expected unless a major development takes place in Iraq, such as the attempt by Iran or its allies in Iraq to embarrass the US. What increases the likelihood that the US will remain in Iraq during the coming period are the continuing threats posed by Daesh (ISIS). There are also other reasons for Washington’s stay in Iraq. Apart from the borders that Iraq shares with Iran, Turkey and Syria, Iraq possesses one of the world's largest reserves of hydrocarbons, and the free flow thereof will be necessary for global economic growth for years to come.[1]

Many Iraqis believe that the US can help them overturn years of instability, internal conflict, and corruption. Regardless of whether this is realistic or not, the US can provide political and economic support to influence Baghdad to move towards consolidating state authority and restricting uncontrolled weapons. Iraq is important not only because of its economic and strategic potential, but also because of Iran. Through Iraq, US policies towards Iran have expanded during the last period when Washington intensified sanctions on Iran and increased its economic and military pressure. If Washington hopes to limit Tehran's network in the Middle East, it should do so in Iraq first.

While it may be early to talk about the possible orientations of President Biden's approach towards Iraq, it will be different from President Trump's approach. In Iraq, Biden will try to reduce dependence on the US forces, assign a greater role to NATO, and support the political and economic efforts of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's government.

Iraq and Biden's foreign priorities

There are important issues for the US in Iraq that will make President Biden obliged to deal with them, because of their strategic repercussions for the US policy in Iraq. The most prominent of these are the following:

1. Combating terrorism and the security dilemma in Iraq

While Daesh has been militarily curtailed, and control has been regained over most of the areas that used to be controlled by the Organisation in the northern and western regions of Iraq, the escalation of repeated attacks by Daesh at the present time indicates that there is more that the US should do in Iraq in the coming period. There may be a tendency in the policy with which the US deals with the escalating Daesh threats towards giving many military powers and local allies more effective roles in confronting the Organisation, with the US being satisfied with providing intelligence and logistical support. This is a general US strategic orientation that may find its way to implementation in Iraq during the next stage.

2. Paths of dealing with Iran and its allies and arms

The US-Iranian relations in Iraq have reached a dangerous turning point after the killing of Soleimani, through the adoption of policies of action and reaction. These were accompanied by the US policies of maximum pressure, against Iran's efforts to utilise the Iraqi arena to evade the US sanctions, expand its security influence, and establish a clear security corridor from Iran to Syria. The Biden administration will have to conduct a detailed review on how to prevent the re-engagement by Iran and its allies in escalatory policies in Iraq. Iran will also be reluctant to take any action that might hinder the US' desire to return to the nuclear deal. Therefore, the Iranian-backed loyalist factions will need to be careful in Iraq so as not to harm Americans or Washington's international partners.[2] Biden is not expected to consider Iraq in isolation from Iran. Therefore, easing the situation with Iran will contribute to the success of Biden’s mission in Iraq, and reduce the chances of chaos by Tehran’s allies as well.

3. The US-Iraqi Strategic Dialogue

Since the US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011 and in accordance with the Security Agreement between the US and Iraq on the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and the organization of their activities during their temporary presence in Iraq and the Strategic Framework Agreement for a relationship of friendship and cooperation concluded between the two countries on 17 November 2008, the US strategy in Iraq has focused on dealing with three issues related to Iraqi security and broader regional security, namely: confronting the Al-Qaeda organisation and subsequently its successor Daesh, confronting Iran, and dealing with the new variable of the Popular Mobilisation Committee (al-Hashd al-Shabi, PMC).[3] The Strategic Dialogue rounds between Iraq and the US began on 11 June 2020 to reach clear settlements to those issues, given that Biden's victory has raised questions about how he will deal with this dialogue that was initiated by the Trump administration, and with its outputs.

Iraq needs a new strategy to sufficiently build its military forces to meet the security challenges stemming from Daesh and the loyalist factions associated with Iran, and to secure its borders with Syria, Turkey, and Iran. According to US estimates, the Iraqi military forces need to be re-trained and rehabilitated for a period of at least 3 to 5 years to be able to carry out their security tasks. Besides, Iraq needs to rebuild its armament system and to reoperate and maintain many military bases.

The process of developing Iraqi military capabilities would doubtlessly be paralysed if the Biden administration decides at any time to withdraw, without the existence of a strategic commitment linking its relations with Iraq. The US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011 led to major rifts that were suffered by the Iraqi army in the face of Daesh attacks in June 2014. When the US decided to return to Iraq in September 2016 through the Global Coalition Against Daesh (GCAD), which consisted of 83 countries, it helped defeat the Organisation and attained other achievements on the ground. President Biden will take those challenges into consideration as the strategic dialogue between Iraq and the US poses a challenge to both countries in terms of shaping a sustainable strategic relationship that serves their goals and interests and helps bring peace and stability to the region.

The Iraqi internal environment and the challenge of Biden’s rise

Through his tenure as former Vice President to US President Barack Obama during the period 2009-2017, President Biden has a good knowledge of the Iraqi internal environment. During that period, he established extensive relations with various Iraqi political actors (Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish), and visited Iraq 24 times during the period 2010-2012. He had clear positions on the US policy in Iraq, given that he published an article in 2006 calling for the partition of Iraq into three provinces, in addition to the capital Baghdad. He opposed the surge in the number of US forces in Iraq in 2007, and after he became Vice President to President Obama, he supervised the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in 2011. Many Iraqi political actors welcomed Biden’s victory, expressing their hope for opening a new page of relations with Iraq.

The rise of President Biden may exacerbate ethnic and sectarian divisions over the US presence in Iraq. While the Sunnis and Kurds greatly support the continuation of the US presence due to fears of Iran's hegemony and the resurgence of Daesh, a large number of the pro-Iran Shiite political and military groups oppose it. With the possible return of President Biden to the nuclear agreement with Iran, those concerns will increase, considering that the economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Iran and the pressure on the pro-Iran Iraqi factions have somewhat led to breaking Iran's hegemony over Iraq. Thus, the Kurds and Sunnis prefer the continuation of the same US policy towards Iran, which poses a challenge to President Biden in terms of how to balance the different demands of the Iraqi political actors.[4]

Therefore, it could be said that the Biden presidency could be accompanied by US support to empower the Sunni and Kurdish components and enhance their role in the political process by entrenching the idea of ​​regions as a solution to the problem of power-sharing in Iraq and breaking the hegemony of the Iran-backed Shiite political current. The Biden administration will seek a regional or international partner that is qualified to play an effective role inside Iraq and that is compatible with the US strategy. The Biden administration will also take the position of the PMC into consideration in any future arrangements in Iraq or with Iran, a variable that was not present when the nuclear agreement was signed in April 2015, in order to ensure the success of its mission in Iraq as well as support the efforts of the Iraqi government in the political, economic and security tracks.

Conclusions

  • While it is too early to talk about President Biden's orientations in Iraq during the coming period, and in light of the complexities of the crisis and the multiplicity of actors in the Iraqi case, it could be said that his administration will give priority to politics over the economy and security in Iraq, and will be keen to activate the role of NATO and strengthen regional and international initiatives related to the US strategy in Iraq.
  • In parallel with the continuation of the counterterrorism policies (Daesh), the activation of the Iraqi government's efforts to reform the security sector, and the activation of security arrangements to enhance the security of the US forces in Iraq, the Biden administration will seek to legalise the US presence in Iraq, strengthen the intelligence and security efforts, give the Iraqi security forces a bigger role in fighting Daesh, and activate the Strategic Dialogue rounds with Iraq, to ​​reach clear partnerships and security relations.
  • The US views Iran and its allies as a difficult variable in the security equation in Iraq. Therefore, the US will not exclude this variable from any future approach towards Iraq.
  • The Biden administration will activate the human rights issues in Iraq by providing fragile support for the protest movement and its demands, as well as supporting the efforts of the Iraqi government in holding early elections, to achieve some kind of political stability in the next phase. It will also make efforts to extricate Iraq from its economic crisis by activating the role of international economic institutions.
  • In general, the Biden administration will seek to formulate a new approach for the US in Iraq, perhaps in the same form that he had aspired to during his tenure in the Obama administration, while preserving of course the US political, economic and military priorities, and giving political realism a clear margin in his approach, given that the political circumstances in Iraq today are different from how they were in the past.

References

[1] Mina Al-Oraibi, The U.S. Middle East Strategy’s Missing Piece Is Iraq, Foreign Policy, 28 Oct 2020. https://bit.ly/2ICv8Wi

[2] Arwa Ibrahim, Joe Biden and the future of Iraq-US relations, Al Jazeera, 9 Nov 2020. https://bit.ly/3pqoCmu

[3] Firas Elias, The Forthcoming Iraqi-American Strategic Dialogue: Complicated Priorities and Thorny Issues, Emirates Policy Center, 3 Jun 2020. https://bit.ly/3kvuXcJ

[4] Mehmet Alaca, What will a Biden presidency mean for Iraq?, The New Alarabi, 10 Nov 2020. https://bit.ly/35w4Qy7

 

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