Pompeo’s thankless visit to the Middle East

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the Middle East trying to assure friends, allies, and non-adversaries that the U.S. isn’t walking away from the region. He claimed that progress has been made in addressing Turkey’s objections to Kurdish militants in northeastern Syria and that Turkey has provided “commitments” that Kurds who fought with U.S. forces against ISIS will be protected when the U.S. leaves Syria.

The only public commitment Turkey has made is its president’s promise to take action to “neutralize terrorist organizations in Syria very soon.”

The Kurds don’t seem impressed by any countervailing commitments Turkey may have made. Reportedly, they are turning to Russia and Assad for protection. According to Liz Sly of the Washington Post, “the Kurds have already reached out to Russia for help to secure a deal with the Syrian government. . .in the hope of averting a threatened Turkish attack.” Sly bases this account on information from “senior Kurdish officials.”

Having Russia entrench its status as Middle East power broker isn’t ideal for the U.S. But if Russia could be counted on to protect the Kurds, that would be okay, albeit sub-optimal.

But Russia can no more be counted on for this purpose than it could be for halting Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Already, President Erdogan of Turkey has scheduled a trip to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin about Syria.

Putin is being asked to balance the interests of Assad (his client), Turkey, and the Kurds. Of the three, it’s reasonable to expect that Kurdish interests will carry the least weight by a goodly margin.

Meanwhile, Pompeo is also trying to reassure the government of Iraq that we remain committed to guarding against a revival of ISIS there. The U.S. currently has 5,200 military personnel in Iraq and there’s talk of drawing down that force.

Iraqi military officials aren’t just concerned about a reduction of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. They also are said to fear that the abandonment of Syria will harm security in Iraq, given the long border between the two countries.

Pompeo reportedly assured Baghdad that the U.S. withdrawal from Syria will be gradual and undertaken in coordination with the Iraqi government. Pompeo, no doubt, was sincere. But is President Trump on board with this approach?

The real key to keeping ISIS (or a successor) from reemerging in Iraq lies with the Iraqi government. If Sunnis are suppressed in the areas recently liberated from ISIS control, their grievances might well lead to the rise of Sunni terrorists hostile not just to the Iraqi government, but also to America and the West. It’s happened before.

The concern isn’t hypothetical. According to this Washington Post report, Shiite militias are now running many Sunni areas they helped liberate. Some of these militias are heavily tied to Iran.

Post reporters Tamer El-Ghobashy and Mustafa Salim paint an ugly picture:

The [militias] are fanned out across Iraq’s Sunni heartland, including the provinces of Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh, home to Iraq’s most-populous Sunni city of Mosul. In Sunni towns, the militias have established political and recruitment offices and operate checkpoints along major roads (and even smaller interior pathways), levying taxes on truckers moving oil, household goods and food.

Some militiamen have engaged in “mafia-like practices,” several Iraqi and U.S. officials said, demanding protection money from both large and small businesses, while shaking down motorists at checkpoints to permit them to pass.

The militias are also deciding which Sunni families are allowed to return to their homes following battles against the Islamic State, say analysts who study the groups. In several towns, militia leaders have compelled local councils to invalidate the property rights of Sunnis on the grounds that they supported the Islamic State. The practice has led to major demographic changes in traditionally mixed Sunni-Shiite areas such as Hilla and Diyala.

With 1.8 million displaced Sunnis still living in camps and in overcrowded shelters, militia efforts to prevent them from returning home contribute to possible radicalization, said Hisham al-Hashimi, a security analyst who advises Iraq’s government and foreign aid agencies. The militias “are an obstacle to the stability of these areas because they are banning the return of internally displaced people,” he said.

The Post’s reporters accuse Iraq’s new prime minister of “showing little sign of wanting to rein [the militias] in.” Presumably, Pompeo discussed the matter during his visit. However, it’s unclear how much control the government could exercise over the militias even if it wanted to.

Maybe I’m being too emotional, but I’d rather keep 2,000 or so troops in Northern Syria to protect an admirable ally with whom we’ve achieved unambiguous success than keep more than 5,000 troops in Iraq with its feckless (at best) government and its seemingly endless cycles of repression, revolt, terrorism, and anarchy.