The Iranian-backed attack in Iraqi Kurdistan is nothing short of disastrous for the United States, for U.S. interests and U.S. allies in the region, and for American prestige.
It’s a hockey-style power play by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Qassem Suleymani, and a direct challenge to President Trump, coming just hours after the President announced a new get tough policy on Iran.
A U.S. ally in Baghdad is attacking another U.S. ally in Kurdistan using U.S. weapons, including M1-A2 Abrams tanks, paid for with U.S. taxpayer dollars. And they are doing so under the watchful eyes of U.S. and coalition drones and fighter jets, which continue to control the skies over Iraq.
How in the world did we get here?
Even Democrats should be ready to admit by now that the American withdrawal from the Middle East under Obama and the Iran nuclear deal have emboldened the Iranian regime, while removing much of the hard-won leverage over Iran that sanctions had won for us.
Today, if we want to get tough on Iran, we can no longer call on our European allies to shut down Iran’s access to the international financial system. We can no longer impose gargantuan fines on a French or a German bank to punish them for violating those sanctions and to deter them from doing it again.
Today, our main leverage over Iran is military. We can bomb their forces in Iraq. We can intercept their ships. Eventually, we could take out their nuclear weapons production facilities.
If that sounds an awful lot like war, it’s because it is.
As Thomas Jefferson reportedly said in relation to the Barbary Pirates, an earlier jihadi Muslim confederacy that declared war on America: sanctions are the only option between appeasement and war. Obama just removed sanctions. QED.
But the Trump administration is not without blame.
The President instructed his national security team to take a fresh look at our overall strategy toward the Islamic State of Iran early in his presidency. To show how serious the administration was, national security advisor Michael Flynn “put Iran on notice” in an on-record briefing on Feb. 1.
And then, something happened. Rather than continue the “get tough” policy by decertifying the Iran nuclear deal, imposing new sanctions and other measures as Flynn was recommending, the President fired Flynn and other hard-line advisors, and everything turned to mush.
I am not dissing the new Iran strategy the President rolled out on Friday, far from it. My Iranian dissident friends drew much encouragement from the President’s willingness to take an all fronts approach against the Iranian regime, not just focus on its nuclear weapons program. The fact that he mentioned the regime’s dreadful record of human rights abuses and political repression was significant.
But does it really mean the U.S. is finally ready to provide material support to a pro-freedom coalition in Iran to spark a popular uprising against the regime?
Don’t hold your breath. The Deep State would never abide by it.
But Qassem Suleymani wasn’t going to wait to find out. Perhaps assuming – correctly – that the U.S. President was leaning out over his skis, he decided to act decisively to test the President’s resolve.
Want to get tough on the Iranian regime, Mr. President? Then bomb the Iranian-backed militias attacking our Kurdish allies in Northern Iraq and send U.S. special forces to capture Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleymani, a war criminal who has the blood of more than a thousand U.S. soldiers on his hands. (Watch a video of how Iran killed our soldiers in Iraq here).
Because that’s what Suleymani is daring you to do. And he’s betting, you won’t lift a finger to help the Kurds or to threaten him in any way.
In Middle East parlance, that makes Suleymani – not Donald Trump – the strong horse, the one to be feared and respected.
To be fair to Suleymani, he has been advancing his pieces like a brilliant chess player, springing his trap on us at precisely the moment when it would cause us the most damage.
First, in 2014 as ISIS was preparing its assault on Mosul and the Assyrian Christian and Kurdish regions of Northern Iraq, he instructed his puppet, then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to order the Iraqi army to withdraw from Mosul ahead of the ISIS advance.
That left Mosul defenseless and accounts for why ISIS was able to take over the city in a matter of hours without a fight.
Maliki fled briefly to Iran after his role in the abandon of Mosul was revealed in the Iraqi media, and was soon replaced by Qassem Suleymani’s new front man, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.
Same puppet-master, new puppet.
Next, he recruited 100,000 Iraqi Shiite fighters into the Hasht-e Shahbi militia, known in English as the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU. They might be Iraqis, but they are owned by Qassem Suleymani and his Quds Force.
When the U.S. decided to rearm the Iraqi military to join the fight against ISIS, Suleymani positioned PMU units to fill the vacuum when ISIS left.
As I learned in July while on a reporting mission to northern Iraq, the PMU faced off with the Kurdish peshmerga all across the Nineveh Plain and was already threatening to confront them in Kirkuk.
As the U.S.-backed Iraqi army drove ISIS out of Iraq, Suleymani’s PMU raced to the border with Syria, opening a land bridge for Iran into Syria and Lebanon, putting Iran on Israel’s northern border directly for the first time.
Today, Suleymani and his strategy ally, Turkish president Erdogan, want to jerk the leash of Iraqi Kurdish president Massoud Barzani to make him realize who really calls the shots in the region.
Guess what: for all of Donald Trump’s welcome bravoura, it’s not the United States.
One immediate goal both the Turks and Iranians share is to eliminate safe havens in Iraqi Kurdistan for the PKK and PJAK, Turkish and Iranian Kurdish dissident groups. Both have reiterated that demand in recent days.
Beyond that, they want to make Barzani kneel as a vassal to his suzerain, and abandon all hopes for Kurdish independence. That can only happen if the United States drops its support for the KRG.
Barzani himself has made bad moves. He has recklessly endangered his Queen (Kirkuk), while not defending his King (Erbil). And while doing so, he has tweaked the nose of his only committed ally, the United States, and alienated his local rivals, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of former Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, who died on October 3.
Barzani appears to have realized he has overstepped with his ill-timed and poorly-prepared referendum, and has agreed to cede the K-1 airbase and other positions south of Kirkuk to Iranian-backed Iraqi government forces south of Kirkuk.
So far, the Pentagon is pretending that nothing is happening, just a bit of maneuvering among friends.
This is not just embarrassing, it is dangerous, wrong-headed, and will lead to total disaster. We’ve already lost Iraq, thanks to Obama’s withdrawal in 2011. Now we are about to lose the last ally on the ground that we have, the Kurds.
It’s time for the United States to face facts and recognize that an independent, united Iraq ceased to exist several years ago, and that the only way for us to check Iranian domination of the region is to support a united, independent and democratic Kurdistan, with U.S. military bases in Kirkuk and Erbil.
To get there will require a great deal of hands-on diplomacy, because Barzani has shown himself to be reckless, unreliable and undemocratic. We need to working the ground, aligning the players.
We need to be playing chess, not checkers.