The world is still sunk deep into the consequences of the Corona epidemic and that still rules the headlines ahead any other topics. Though many countries, especially in Europe are taking careful steps to ease the measures, President Trump is still heavily attacked for his decisions in epidemic and in regard of the economy. And some of his suggestions are truly weird. All this will likely to go on for some time, regardless of the actual development of the epidemic, because so close to the elections that is surely a matter most American voters can associate with. Unlike foreign policy deliberations. But those are important too, especially in regards to the Middle East.

            This is also a time when the price of oil plummeted to unseen, and formally unthinkable depths. In this it is widely explained that the main cause is the Russian-Saudi “oil” war, but as now the Saudi budget is about the hit its long unseen biggest deficit, with already $9,1 billion loss in the first quarter and rumored threats by Trump himself to Riyadh to decrease production, it is questionable how much the Saudis are responsible for the situation on their own. There are also big changes in Yemen, when the formally supported pseudo-government of President Hādī practically fall apart by the Southern Transitional Council announcing its autonomy. That might even tears Yemen apart, but as we saw before the Americans are not far from this scenery. And there is Libya, where after a series of setbacks for Major-General Ḥaftar, who has the widest possible Arab support now in the Libyan scene he announced a unilateral ceasefire this week, but that so far hasn’t stopped the clashes. And this comes only a day after Ḥaftar’s announcement that the government behind him stepped back from the aṣ-Ṣuhayrāt Agreement, which in theory opened all possibilities for a full war.

            It is clear that aside the main attention given to Corona matter the Middle East is full of developments, many hidden from the public, but with possible long term affects. But there is a rather strange development in the Syrian-Iraqi front, where now Washington is very active. On one hand, seemingly bucking under pressure from Baghdad as it seems that the Iraqis finally reached an agreement about the new PM, the Americans are pulling out from their bases, even from the famed Abū Ġarīb prison. And now the Iraqi Armed Forces openly talk about a timetable of full withdrawal to be discussed in June. Many are understandably skeptical, as there are many indications of an imminent coup attempt by the Americans, but so far the signs are promising. Was that not contradicting enough, at the same time the Americans are increasingly strengthening their presence in Syria, as if they were just transferring the same forces from neighboring Iraq. And the Syrian matter especially in the East is full of small, but very telling little events, which all foreshadow that major events are about to happen sooner or later. While there are news of renewed Dā‘iš activity in Syria in the East, a big number of their fighters escaped from a Qasad manned prison, which story suddenly disappeared from the headlights. Than the Americans started move more resources in, while they are pulling out from Iraq. In addition to that they started to recruit local Syrians in the East to be human shields around their compounds, for which Qasad seems to be insufficient, and while the open resistance against their presence is growing with losses of lives. And the nature of resistance in Syria is clearly different from the random and sometime counterproductive fashion of the Iraqi one.

            The American, though hardly ever comment these steps, call it redeployment, or rearrangement of their troops in the region, but strangely enough that comes at a time, when Iranian-American tension rise up once again, while Israel increased its attacks on Syria, so far with no avail.

            What are we seeing here? Initial steps for full withdrawal from Iraq, and eventually from Syria? Steps of power concentration within Syria to plan a major step in Iraq? Pressure on Damascus by the Americans, or just the stabilization of their illegal presence? The renewed Israeli terror against Syria is just a step to galvanize the new coalition government, or Tel Aviv really noticed changes in the Syrian scene to the expanse of its desires? These will be our main questions for this week.


The new ruler of Baghdad

            Indeed the Iraqi PM casting, ever since ‘Ādil ‘Abd al-Mahdī resigned, was almost resembling the South American soup operas, with twists and turns, and with conspiracies all over it. It tricked us many times as well, when we felt confident to say that there is a result, only to see soon after that the candidate was replaced. And that is nothing surprising even, since the replacement of Nūrī al-Mālikī only weeks after a won elections happened under very suspicious circumstances, only to see the elections of 2018 to bring in a stalemate, very similar to what we have today, which after long battles resulted an outsider, ‘Ādil ‘Abd al-Mahdī. He was a compromise technocrat, a devoted one, but weak.

            This tragicomic sequence seemingly reached an end on 9 April, only hours before the deadline to reach an agreement between the biggest parties have ended. It was reported on 8 April that the biggest parties reached and agreement, but given the previous turns that only seemed like a vague idea, so that the position of ‘Adnān az-Zurufī would have been secured as a caretaker, until new election could have been arranged. This time, however, the prognoses were right and the Iraqi President Barham Ṣāliḥ appointed Muṣṭafā al-Kāẓimī as the new PM, by the wish of the major parties.

            Since 2016 al-Kāẓimī was the director of the Iraqi Intelligence. He is reportedly close to former PM Ḥaydar al-‘Abādī to who he owes his appointment, and also to the Western interests, he is an old fashioned leftist, therefore a staunch supporter of secular state. He also had a substantial education in the West, the U.K., but has never become a double citizen. Though he is a non-partisan, lawyer by education and journalist by profession, he is in fact not a light personality and has his substantial power base. Therefore many see him now to be an ideal candidate to be equally distant from Tehran and Washington. Which ‘Abd al-Mahdī should have been, but was consumed in party politics. So far al-Kāẓimī seems secure enough, he already outlined many policies, most envisioning a self-reliant Iraqi policy, and on 1 May even the names of his cabinet was suggested, which is a good sign, but after the previous turns we dare not to say anything in that matter for sure.

            Should al-Kāẓimī manage to form a government that would erase the probability of early elections this, or the following year, and given his knowledge of the security realities of the country, he might even have a chance to stabilize Iraq. Given his position is not undermined, by either of the strong “allies”.


Pull out, or exchange?

            Indeed one follows the headlines now would get the impression that the American and other Coalition forces are pulling out now. It all started in mid-March after a set of bloody clashes, when the American forces gave up one of their most controversial bases in Iraq, the al-Qā’im Base at the Syrian border, and gave them to the Iraqi forces. It was viewed as just a stunt, a mere gesture and nothing more, as this base was one of the most secluded, where local support was very weak for the American presence and supply was getting ever more difficult. But the pull out continued with the Qayyāra Base in the north and with the K1 Base in Kirkūk late March. These are in fact huge facilities and were viewed by many previously that Washington would never give them up. Not to mention that the French, though technically claiming the Corona epidemic to be the cause, also announced their full withdrawal, and all other Coalition forces announced that they only take part in training missions. Signaling that they stand down and ready to leave if that decision truly comes up.

            This trend only got a new impetus with the agreement upon the new PM, however, certain things should not be forgotten. And that is not at all a coincidence that al-Kaẓimī pushes hard now to obtain Russian S-400 – or at least any older model – air defense systems. Unlike in the case of Turkey, or Egypt for example, that is less of a political deliberation than an actual tactical one. When tension started to really spiral out of control in the summer and than Prime Minister ‘Ādil ‘Abd al-Mahdī was desperately caught between Washington and Tehran as “unidentified” planes were shelling Iraqi military compounds, it was clear that the biggest weakness of Baghdad that it has no control over its own skies. Therefore al-Kaẓimī wants a system, which is not operated by the Americans, so the Iraqi government could obtain a bargaining chip for its is sovereignty. Because as long as the Iraqi air control and air defense is in American hands the main decision on the American military presence in Iraq is solely in the hands of Washington.

            These bases are important, but some, like the infamous ‘Ayn al-Asad in the middle of the desert, or just the American embassy itself are vast compounds, perfectly enough to influence policy decisions, or to commit assassination on the scale of the one against Soleymānī. And there is also the the matter of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the local autonomous government is not pushing for American withdrawal. And against which it will be very difficult for Baghdad to push to the Americans’ ouster, since there are Kurdish political forces in the federal parliament, and such a move might push the Kurds once again for full independence.

            And that is just the official side of it. Political instability is still existent in Iraq, even in the southern, mostly Shia provinces and the protest, thought greatly losing steam now, are still ongoing. Should we not forget that the last contender before al-Kaẓimī, ‘Adnān az-Zurufī lost his bid after protestors got killed and the religious authorities pull the support from him. Truly the popular, even the armed resistance against the Americans is growing, but it is very random and behind the smokescreen of violence Dā‘iš started to reappear in Iraq. As we will see, this comes strangely at a time, when the same goes on in Syria and a big number of then miraculously escaped, or disappeared from Syrian prisons under indirect and direct American oversight. News are stating that indeed the Americans at the same time moving Dā‘iš detainees in Syria to unknown locations. And at the same time elements of the al-Ḥašd aš-Ša‘abī openly accuse the Americans with treachery. Like on 1 May the an-Nuğabā’ Movement accused the American forces of transferring Dā‘iš elements from Syria to Iraq to undermine security and make ground for a coup. And these suspicions are not vague at all, as only hours after the warning of the an-Nuğabā’ Dā‘iš performed its biggest coordinated attack for years in three central provinces. Which at early 2 May was still fairly contained by the Iraqi security forces, but by previous attacks it is clear the the threat grows.

            Either way, there is a clear contradiction. If the Americans are really about to pull out, why is it not happening in a more transparent and open manner, including all the bases, even in Northern Iraq? If they don’t want to pull out in reality and just put up a gesture until they find a way to overturn the Iraqi Parliament’s decision, why are they pulling out from even strategic and expansively built bases? The size of the redeployment so far exceeds the level of usual gesture. In any case, the steps in Syria are suggesting a less than honest intention, knowing that the Iraqi political system is shakable, and a “comeback” was never really difficult for Washington.


On the Syrian side

Map of Eastern Syria after the partial American withdrawal and Syrian return

            The Syrian scenery saw a rapid surge of activity in the last few weeks as well, much due to the Americans. Ever since Trump announced a full withdrawal from Syria the matter was bouncing back and forth. First it was stated that at-Tanaf at the south of Syria would not be abandoned, because that is a strategic defense point for Israel. Which was a clear indication that the original claims, namely fighting against Dā‘iš was just a pretext for occupation. But the eastern Syrian territories saw that same uncertainty until the Turkish operation last October against the so called “Syrian Democratic Forces” (Qasad), which prompted a partial American withdrawal.

            By now it is clear that this was much more a reshuffle of the troops present, but did at least lead to the liberation of ar-Raqqa and Aleppo provinces from the American occupation. In fact the occupation became more concentrated, focusing on the oil and gas fields. Which experts pointed out has a double aim to keep the occupation somewhat self-payed, while depriving the Syrian state from the oil, consequently from the energetic and financial resources for the economy. This way pressure can still be applied on Damascus, which Washington does use, also proving the falsities of the anti-Dā‘iš efforts narrative. On the other hand, and that is the most important, it cut the supply route between Iraq and Syria, cutting a massive allied block to two.

            The American presence slowly started to grow in Syria since the beginning of the year, and now there are 14 American bases there, not counting at-Tanaf. Recently we managed to provide detailed information about that. And this is only growing, with more troops and equipment almost every day entering illegally from Iraq, at the same time of the pull out there. It has been confirmed that they are putting up two new more bases, but their plans go beyond that.


            Local sources confirm that while the Americans have started to put up two more bases and they have already bought the land for them, they have also started to recruit a new local “ally”. Washington is presently training a new local armed group, mostly Arabs to compensate a mainly Kurdish Qasad. $350 are payed for every individual, which so far has 800 members divided into 3 brigades. Or at least that is the target. Though the group does not have a name yet, their training is massively ongoing as the Americans pulled 50 men from at-Tanaf to the training program, which is reportedly not performed in the Qasad training centers. And knowing the nature of the base at at-Tanaf, it is likely that not only American are providing training. Two things are striking in this development. First of all this groups will be placed almost exclusively around the oil facilities, mostly around the al-‘Umar oilfield as a human shield, expecting that local tribal and central Syrian ambushes will be smaller against locally recruited men. On the other, it is a signal that the complete reliance on Qasad is about to end, or it proved insufficient. Which is not surprising, since even Qasad has difficulties finding Syrian members, as the majority is Turkish or Iraqi born Kurds. So this newly forming group also faces problem. Nonetheless, this is a clear indication that the Americans are not planning to leave any time soon.

            Clearly they are planning with increased amount of insurgency and resistance, and that is going on. Even we reported that there are daily steps by local residents stopping, or at least confronting the American oppressors, but by now there are ambushed by “unknown men” almost every week and they are losing men. While this is less surprising, recently two Americans were kidnapped, which indicate a planned strategy. By someone.

            Interestingly this increased American movement comes at the time when Israel renewed its attacks on Syrian targets. Allegedly against Iranian military targets, but so far has only bombed civilians in Damascus and at a border crossing with Lebanon. And recently that was accompanied by a massive bombardment from above the Ğūlān against Palmyra, deep in the Syrian desert. While these atrocities increase now to two-three times weekly, the reason is less clear. It could be seen that after a long period of relative calm, as Netanyahu was worried for his position between early elections and feared for losses, by the coalition agreement the new government once again shows power. Especially that they face increasing criticism for the spread of Corona. Others, however, suggested that this is a new phase of the conflict, as the Israeli government announced that its started to squeeze out the Iranian presence from Syria.

            This goes suspiciously close in time with the American redeployment, which would indicate a more aggressive approach by the American-Israeli tandem, though not forgetting that elections are coming up in the US, and until than no major engagement is probable. Which either suggest a PR move by the new government in Tel Aviv – considering Gantz was Chief of Staff -, or the beginning of a long term plan, far from the anti-Dā‘iš claim. That foreshadows a worrisome picture about the terror organization. And here once again we should remember how Tel Aviv views the Dā‘iš and its affiliates, which in smaller pockets is still active in the occupied Ğūlān and at at-Tanaf.


Will it ever end?

            This is the question, which is the most recurring in the last few years in Syria and in the region, but of course, the content is somewhat different. In general that question was applicable to the Dā‘iš, and by late 2017, or mid-2018 it seemed that the matter is over. The organization is crushed, its resources are cut, its main recruiting pools are closed and soon its leadership is apprehended. Since that even its supposed Caliph was allegedly killed, and than replaced. But the organization somehow hasn’t vanished, and in the last few months found sudden impetus to start its quest once again. It is less surprising in Iraq, where the organization indeed managed to utilize internal social and sectarian fractures, but the noteworthy thing is that in Syria the terror group only managed to regrow in areas not entirely under the central Syrian control. Especially in the East, where actual daily administration is contested, and clashes grow. In both countries, however, it is a striking notion, that now Dā‘iš, unlike in 2013-14, has a chance to directly attack American, or other Western forces. Yet it confines its actions against state forces. There are many suggestions to this contradiction, but the main conclusion is that under uncertain conditions terror groups do re-emerge, in one form or another. For which restoring centralized state administration in both countries should be a priority. Just like strengthening the cooperation between the Syrian and the Iraqi authorities and forces, as it seems that Dā‘iš and some other terror organizations are swinging back and forth between the two countries. Strangely, however, that is the very thing the American presence is sabotaging the most, and very obviously intentionally, as it concentrates on the border crossing.

            That is the other aim of the question, whether the American presence will ever end. In Iraq as we saw there were legal measures against it. But that is somewhat easier by the fact that the Americans are present by official agreement, which the Iraqis can – at least in theory – revoke. Thus revoking the legal ground for the American presence and can demand them to leave. In Syria, however, the whole American presence is illegal, and no matter how much complain Damascus issues to the U.N. about it, so far it has no effect. The next logical step would be an armed resistance, which is a delicate matter in regard to Syria’s allies, who don’t wish to go to a full war with the US; and her other enemies, like Israel, which are eager to see a reason for war. This logically suggest a path, which was indicated by the Syrian President in a number of interviews, that local resistance will grow uncontrollably, and in time that will chase away the Americans. Just like it happened in Lebanon with Israel. True, it took more than ten years, but eventually the Israelis had to leave. And that was a much more crucial project for Israel, and it was more devoted for it than the Americans are now for Syria. And one can suspect that the Syrian intelligence will not be far from these attacks. The recent kidnapping already show an aim, a political idea behind these steps, rather than a sporadic and spontaneous anger.

            On the other hand the increased presence and the formation of yet another armed group to control the local population in the East is a very grim sign that the Americans plan for long. We also have prototypes for this policy in Lebanon with the Israeli financed South Lebanese Army, a front for occupation, so the comparison still fits. And since the South Lebanese Army has also evaporated in time, the hope is there.

            But in regard to the length of the American presence, one has to question the motive. Why are the Americans there? To steal to oil? The Americans currently have enough reserve of their own, they are turning into exporters now, and anyways they can always secure funds and energy from the Gulf. Compared to that scenery the Syrian oil reserve are minuscule. It is much rather a tool to finance this shady and completely illegal operation, to make it as self-sufficient as possible, since Trump promised withdrawal a year and a half ago. So it should not burden the Treasury. Also it serves to deny the Syrian state from the oil money, and the basic energy resource to restart its economy. With the full liberation of Aleppo that is much needed now. As long as this economy revival can be stalled, the Syrian state stays vulnerable, and that is exactly why Washington is prolonging this occupation.

            Overall that is very possible that with the upcoming elections the military-intelligence branch of the American state has already opted for the possibility of a new President. And if that happens, he might just authorize a new war. For that, a firm basis should be secured, and that might just be the very thing we see in both countries. Which if Trump stays, can be picked up.

            The much bigger strategic role, however, is not directly linked to Washington’s own interests. Much rather to halt the block, which is otherwise known as the Axis of Resistance. To stop a strong Lebanese-Syrian-Iraqi-Irani block to from. And to achieve that the Syrian-Iraqi cooperation has to be stalled. Which is the prime interest of another American ally. In that sense one can see that the American presence has a potential to go on for long, since it utilizes all possible means to achieve that. Even those, some consider to be unnatural.