By most accounts this pact is the result of the Maliki government’s increasing confidence in Iraq’s armed forces and U.S. domestic pressure for withdrawal.
There is, however, a gaping hole in this deal: It has no strategy to contend with Iraq’s neighbors - some of whom are capable and willing to undermine Iraqi stability.
Without a political strategy that counteracts their influence or engages them in the process, a withdrawal agreement is not worth the paper on which it is printed.
Iraq’s neighbors are not just bystanders: almost all have specific interests and, through surrogates, have been actively involved in Iraq. These activities have often been at odds with U.S. and Iraqi government wishes.
A withdrawal plan, which creates a political vacuum, invites intervention by Iraq’s neighbors to shape the nation’s internal evolution in accordance with their own security considerations.
This, of course, is not as easy as it seems. Two of Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria, have been at loggerheads with Washington. Lines of communication are all but closed and replaced by complete mistrust.
Tehran and Damascus firmly suspected that regime change in Baghdad would extend to them as well. Washington consistently has accused both countries of supporting Iraq’s insurgency; and in the case of Iran, accusations include the transfer of arms and training for insurgents.
By contrast, the other four neighbors - Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait - are long-standing allies of the U.S.
Iran and the Saudis are eyeing each other nervously in Iraq. Riyadh, already unnerved by Iran’s nuclear program, sees Iran attempting to use a Shia-dominated Baghdad as an ally in its quest for regional dominance. Tehran, in turn, fears Saudi-supported Sunni jihadist movements and the emergence of a pro-U.S. Iraq aligning itself against Iran.
Turks, Iranians and Syrians would like to see the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) subjugated to Baghdad’s control, if not disappear altogether. In their minds, a Kurdish province in an Iraqi federal state could inspire secessionist impulses among their own much-maligned Kurdish populations.
Saudis and other Arabs are unsympathetic to federalism, believing that Kurdish aspirations will one day lead them to secede and carve out another non-Arab country in the region or the Shia will create a superfederal region of their own.
The U.S. and Iraq’s neighbors, however, do share one common goal: Iraq’s territorial integrity. Where they disagree is on the internal arrangements. This provides a foundation on which Washington can begin a diplomatic initiative to construct a regionwide understanding.
The most important first step is to work with the allies individually to unscramble conflicting U.S. and Iraqi concerns on one side and Turkish, Saudi, Jordanian and Kuwaiti ones on the other.