Last week President Obama announced that all US troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year. That would formally end more than eight years of combat that cost the U.S more than 4,400 lives, more than 33,000 injured servicemen and servicewomen, and up to one trillion dollars in direct costs.
Other than keeping his 2008 campaign promise to end the war, the straw that broke the camel's back for Obama was the Iraqi refusal to guarantee legal immunity to US servicemen in Iraqi courts. That refusal probably triggered frustration or even rage. In the Iraqis' eyes, shedding US soldiers' blood in protecting their regime is expected and accepted, but granting the soldiers legal immunity is unacceptable? Surely this is a new definition of "chutzpah."
In May 2006, Sen. Joseph Biden, then the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, proposed in a New York Times op-ed that Iraq be divided into three separate regions -- Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni -- with a central government in Baghdad. Biden meant to decentralize Iraq, not to break it up. However, almost six years later, Biden's dream may materialize -- with a "few" modifications -- rendering the potential outcome a nightmare.
With the US out, Iraq could be torn apart: its southern Shia-populated, oil-rich region would be devoured by Iran. Iraq's northern area bordering with Turkey could become a Kurdish independent state, leaving Sunni Iraqis with the areas around Baghdad with practically no oil, without any visible source of income, but with a million mouths to feed.
Who is going to stop that doomsday scenario from happening? Iraq has no meaningful national army that can prevent an Iranian invasion "at the request of the Shiites in southern Iraq to protect them," a likely excuse that could be used by the Iranians. Since the US war against Iraq weakened Iraq to the point that it cannot effectively defend itself from Iran, the unintended result of the US withdrawal could be delivering southern Iraq to the Iranians on a silver platter. Guess what would happen then.
The Iranians are motivated to tear Iraq up not only because of the Iraqi oil; in the Middle East, injury to honor is never forgotten and must be avenged. Saddam's Iraq started a war against Iran in 1980 that ended with an Iranian defeat that forced it to sign a cease fire agreement in 1988. The Iranians have not forgotten that. Arab nomads used to say "I waited forty years for my revenge, and when it finally came, I said to myself, perhaps I was too hasty." It has been only 23 years since their defeat, so the Iranian memory of their humiliating defeat must still be fresh.
What will happen to other major US allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran's biggest enemy? Does the US withdrawal from Iraq also signal the diminishing importance of the Saudis to the US if the fears that its oil reserves are dwindling are true? According to confidential cables released by WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats expressed concern that Saudi Arabia might have overstated its petroleum reserves by 40%. If true, has the US knowingly acquiesced to the potential increase of Iranian control of a region that supplies 30% of the worlds' oil, even while it's still flowing? With no troops in the region, and with the US Congress and the public opinion reluctance to start a new war in the region, how would the US stop the Iranians? There must be a plan to counter that eventuality behind Obama's decision to withdraw, or perhaps the plan is "Après moi, le deluge" ("After me, the deluge") a saying attributed to the King of France Louis XV (1710-1774)?
Northern Iraq faces a major but a potentially positive change. For the first time in their history more than 30 million Kurds scattered in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran may finally achieve independence. In recent months PKK, the Kurdish rebel movement, has killed scores of Turkish soldiers in eastern Turkey, prompting Turkey to launch cross border incursions into Kurdish strongholds Iraq in hot pursuit. Although the Kurds enjoy limited autonomy in several regions, the Turkish government has imposed severe limitations on the Kurds who try to preserve their culture and language.
The 2003 US invasion into Iraq gave the Kurds a powerful position they never had: the power to tip the scale toward either the Sunnis or the Shiites. That power enabled them to demand and ultimately receive substantial oil royalties from the sale of oil produced in Northern Iraq. That money has given the Kurdish city of Irbil a visible significant economic boost.
The US withdrawal from Iraq and the recent escalation of Kurdish military battle in eastern Turkey prompted an emergency meeting last week in Ankara between the Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers. They publicly announced their countries' determination to fight PKK and its Iranian branch PJAK. They certainly realize that the possible establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq would be dangerous for their countries. With an independent Kurdish state, it is likely that Kurds currently living in northern Iran and eastern Turkey would demand to attach their regions to the new Kurdish state, tearing these regions from Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq At stake are not only honor and the respective countries' territorial integrity and sovereignty.
There's money involved. Big money. The area populated by the Kurds, commonly known as Kurdistan, is rich in oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, chrome ore, copper and iron. Geologically it's an extension of the world's richest petroleum fairway, extending from Saudi Arabia to Kurdistan. Kurdistan's oil reserves are estimated to have 50- 100 billion barrels of oil, making it one of largest oil reserves in the world. Kurdistan's natural gas reserves are estimated at around 20 trillion cubic meters.
Just a month ago, Turkey agreed that an early warning radar, a part of NATO's missile defense system, would be installed in Kurecik in the Malatya province approximately 435 miles west of the Iranian border. The radar system is capable of countering ballistic missile attacks from Iran. Iran was quick to warn Turkey that deploying that system would escalate regional tensions.
Turkey and Iran also disagree on their respective Syria policy, with Turkey critical of Iranian ally Syria's brutal killing of Syrian civilian protesters and other hostilities exacted by the Syrian regime, which has sent thousands of Syrian refugees into Turkey seeking shelter.
Did Iran forget about these disagreements with Turkey when it rushed to join them in the battle against the Kurds? Has Iran withdrawn in its demand that Turkey removes the radar system aimed at Tehran, or are the Iranians waiting for the right opportunity? Because in the Middle East, you don't forget, but wait for your break.