Russian military specialists are flying to Venezuela, Iran is increasing its drone threats to Saudi Arabia, and Turkey is blustering about a new military operation in eastern Syria. Across the Middle East and among U.S. global adversaries, there is a desire to test the Trump administration in every hotspot that the U.S. is involved in. Given the current impeachment crisis in Washington, it is essential that policymakers keep their eye on the foreign-policy ball, especially in the Middle East.
U.S. adversaries watch American domestic politics carefully, as evidenced by their own state media playing up internal divisions in the U.S. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted on September 21 to highlight comments by former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, claiming that Trump was being “pushed to war.” On September 28, Russia’s TASS website ran headlines about Nancy Pelosi and Hunter Biden. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke at the United Nations, where he showed a map suggesting that Turkey would take over northeastern Syria and resettle millions of Syrians in an area that the U.S. has worked with the Syrian Democratic Forces to keep stable. Turkey is also defying the U.S. over sanctions on Iran and buying Russia’s S-400 system.
Iran, Turkey, and Russia all seem poised to leverage the current crisis and distraction in the U.S. to their own benefit. Iran wants to increase its role in Iraq by empowering a carbon copy of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This is the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a force of mostly Shi’ite paramilitaries who have been turned into an official force in Iraq. Despite U.S. concerns and sanctions against a deputy of the PMU and other elements within it, Iraq is seeking greater integration of the units with Iran’s support. Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, is heading to Iran, and he recently forced out Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, a key counterterrorism officer, in unclear circumstances. A border crossing that includes an Iranian base is being opened with Syria.
Iran’s goal is to use its proxies against U.S. allies in order to pressure it. Washington accuses Iran of an attack on Saudi Arabia on September 14, and Iranian IRGC teams with “killer drones” have threatened Israel from Syria. Iran brags about the drone programs its Houthi allies have constructed, a clear message to the U.S. and the region. In recent comments, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah assert that the attack on Saudi Arabia makes the U.S. and allies look weak.
Turkey, a historic U.S. ally but increasingly working with Iran and Russia, likely sees the crisis in the U.S. as an opportunity to push for its “safe zone” in eastern Syria. Here it wants to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which helped defeat ISIS. Turkey calls them “terrorists” and hopes it can get control of eastern Syria. Ankara’s foreign minister said on September 28 that Turkey was unhappy with the pace of negotiations over eastern Syria.
Russia’s goal is more complex. It wants to pry Turkey away from the U.S. and sell its weapons systems to Ankara while increasing energy exports. But Russia is wary of a new conflict in Syria, either between Israel and Iran or between other groups, such as the Syrian regime and the rebels in Idlib. Russia’s overall goal is to weaken the U.S. across the Middle East by quietly portraying itself as the reliable player. Domestic chaos helps it push that image, no matter how flawed Moscow’s policies may be.
It will be difficult for U.S. policymakers to emphasize that our policy is consistent amid the current crises that lay open White House conversations with foreign leaders, but the U.S. doesn’t want to be on the back foot in both Syria and Iraq, potentially jeopardizing U.S. partners in eastern Syria and in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Any U.S. retreat in Iraq or Syria would be capitalized on by Iran and used to threaten U.S. allies, particularly Israel. In northern Iraq, where U.S. forces are standing shoulder to shoulder with Kurdish peshmerga against the continued ISIS threat, there are also concerns that Iranian-backed militias are on steroids, increasing their presence and threats. Iranian officials have indicated that the U.S. could be targeted in Iraq amid U.S.–Iran tensions. Mortars fell near the U.S. embassy on September 23, as if on cue.
A strong and consistent policy from the U.S., backing allies and sticking with the goals of defeating ISIS, as well as maximum pressure on Iran are all necessary to deter adversaries. This also means working closely with the SDF in eastern Syria and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. Iran, Russia, and Turkey are watching. They meet frequently in discussions about the future of Syria. They believe that the U.S. presence in the region is being reduced. One hundred years of U.S. engagement in the Middle East should be enough to assure them that Washington isn’t going anywhere and that the U.S. is sticking with its partners and allies.