As published in Kurdistan 24 by Laurie Mylroie
WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) — The US “will continue to sustain our robust train, equip, advise, and assist program with the Peshmerga in order to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Mulroy told Kurdistan 24 on Friday.
“We are grateful for the sacrifices of Iraqi fighters—to include Iraqi Kurdish fighters—in support of the campaign against ISIS,” he continued.
Noting that the so-called Islamic State was reemerging, Mulroy explained that it “exploits security gaps” in the disputed territories and “along the line of separation between Iraqi and Kurdish security forces,” as he called for improved coordination between the two.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Mulroy. (Photo: US Department of Defense)
“The United States strongly supports recent progress in relations between Baghdad and Erbil,” he said, in accord with “the Iraqi constitution’s framework for dialogue.” The US also supports the “timely resolution of outstanding issues of concern, including budget issues and oil sales.”
“In particular,” Mulroy stressed, “the United States and the Department of Defense will continue to encourage security coordination by both sides in order to bring security and stability to the disputed territories.”
Mulroy also noted that Britain, Australia, and Bahrain have joined the US effort to “promote maritime stability, ensure safe passage, and enhance freedom of navigation” in key regional waterways, which he listed as the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Oman.
The US-led maritime initiative follows the Iranian sabotage and seizure of a number of oil tankers in May, June, and July. The US effort appears, at least for now, to have caused Tehran to desist from such attacks.
Over the course of the wide-ranging discussion, Mulroy described how Russia has been bolstering its position in the Middle East. The US National Defense Strategy, published in 2018, he noted, identifies great power competition as the top US national security issue, marking a move away from the earlier US focus on fighting terrorism related to the Middle East, if not actually in the Middle East.
Yet the Middle East is also an arena for the great power competition that constitutes the new US focus. There is a long history of Western powers failing to understand key developments in the region, with consequences that can prove strategic.
David Fromkin provided one such example in his seminal book on World War I, A Peace to End all Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East. The British misunderstood the Committee of Union and Progress, after it took power in Constantinople in 1908. That British failure then facilitated Germany’s recruitment of the Ottomans to its side after World War I broke out—with enormous consequences for Britain and its allies.
“Russia views Syria as the center of its approach to the broader Middle East,” Mulroy told Kurdistan 24.
“Syria presents Russia with many opportunities, including but not limited to re-establishing great power status in the region, demonstrating and improving” its military capabilities, and “deepening contacts with traditional US partners and allies,” he said.
Turkey is a notable case. Last October, Turkey and Russia signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Idlib, the last rebel-held territory in Syria. The agreement was supposed to provide for a ceasefire and protect the three million people now living in the province.
However, Syria and Russia have repeatedly broken the ceasefire, as they slowly take back territory, in the process, threatening a humanitarian catastrophe, as desperate civilians, fleeing the fighting, seek refuge in Turkey.
Russian President Vladimir Putin uses the conflict in Syria to gain leverage over Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just visited Moscow in an attempt to get Putin to restrain Syrian forces. In their latest violation of the ceasefire, they have pressed against Turkey’s military position in Syria—as provided for in the Idlib agreement—and brought a flood of refugees to Turkey’s border.
“For several days, Putin refused to take a call from Erdogan, but the Kremlin then informed Ankara that the Russian president could meet his Turkish counterpart at the MAKS air show,” Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian and currently a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in a piece published on Friday, entitled “Putin Plays Erdogan Like a Fiddle.”
While at the Moscow airshow, the two leaders discussed Turkey’s possible purchase of Russia’s latest fighter jet, the SU-57, with Erdogan telling Putin, “We want our solidarity to continue in several areas of the defense industry. This can be passenger or war planes. What is important is the spirit of cooperation,” Erdemir reported.
Russia is also courting other “traditional US partners in the region, such as Egypt, Israel, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Iraq,” Mulroy explained, even as he emphasized that “Russia is a transactional partner, seeking its own benefit.”
Russia “thrives in chaos,” he said, and “therefore, does not seek the best interests of its transactional partners.”
But as Mulroy stressed, for the US, “our partners are the most important asset we have,” and we are “committed to being a steady partner,” while providing “a positive backbone architecture for regional security.”