US President-elect Joe Biden must learn from the country’s experience in the Middle East to formulate policy on Iraq for a new era, according to Phillip Smyth, a fellow at the Washington Institute.
As Biden prepares to take office January 20, he will be confronted with myriad challenges in the Middle East, including Iran and its proxy network, especially the threat of pro-Iran militias in Iraq that often target US coalition forces and other Western targets.
While US presidents tend to reject have often employed strategies opposite to their predecessors, Biden should learn from the functional aspects of policies that have come out of the Trump and Obama administrations, Smyth said.
“Now it’s time to kind of build off of successes and failures,” Smyth said.
New militias pose threat
The US must confront Iranian influence in Iraq via both well-established militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Ahaq and the emerging threat from newer front groups that have formed over the past year that appear to a diversionary tactic, providing cover for Iran to carry out its malign activities.
Some of the new front groups exist in name only or on a Telegram page, but they remain a legitimate threat to US interests, Smyth said, adding that the US has the capabilities to counter Iran’s online campaigns by supporting the message that Iraq is sovereign.
The US has reaffirmed its respect for Iraq’s sovereignty, and where Iran uses messaging campaigns to promote its own narrative in Iraq and gain influence, the US has the capabilities to push its message that Iraq is its own state.
Response from the US
Both Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama pledged to withdraw troops from Iraq. However, the Trump administration took a more hardline approach toward Iran, withdrawing from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and adopting a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Tehran.
“What President Trump demonstrated [in January] was that if somebody like Qassem Soleimani or Abdul-Mahdi al Mohandes, two leading Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force commanders are plotting attacks and plotting different ways to probe and threaten the US and its interests and its forces and its allies, sometimes those you need to take care of those issues,” Smyth said.
Smyth, however, said that such hardline policy actions have ramifications, often leading to retaliation. The US has said it will consider closing its embassy in Baghdad in response to increasing attacks on the Green Zone, while the proliferation of new militias suggests the US strategy has not been able to contain Iran’s influence in Iran.
Challenges ahead for Biden
Looking forward to a Biden presidency, the threat posed by the militias is unlikely to cool.
While the new groups say they are fighting against US coalition military forces, they might also decide to hit US commercial targets, said Emily Hawthorne, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Texas-based Stratfor. However, as such infrastructure is often critical for Iraq’s economy, attacking it would therefore be unpopular and costly.
Over the next few months, tensions between the militias and the Iraqi government may escalate, posing a larger challenge that could also threaten other Western targets, she added.
To confront the new front groups, the US needs to rely on its own asymmetric capabilities to counter those used by Iran, including tapping into media and messaging that supports a sovereign Iraq, Smyth said.
With the possibility of further escalation, Biden will have to formulate an Iraq policy that promotes a sovereign Iraq that addresses both old and new threats.