Through the Dark Clouds, a Silver Lining
by Gabriel Scheinmann
JINSA Visiting Fellow
On October 21, President Obama announced the impending end of U.S. military operations in Iraq, ordering the complete withdrawal of American forces by the end of 2011. Unable or unwilling to strike a deal to secure a long-term military presence, the President confidently declared that “Iraqis have taken full responsibility for their country’s security” leading to much anxiety amongst American commanders.
Although both governments have pledged to work closely together to continue securing Iraq from both external and internal threats, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, commander of the NATO Training Mission in Iraq and chief of the Office of Security Cooperation responsible for training and equipping Iraqi forces, has acknowledged that there will be a major “training gap” following the American withdrawal. Following comments made last month by Maj. Gen. Russell Handy, responsible for training Iraq’s fledgling air force, that there would be a minimum 2-3 year gap in Iraq’s ability to defend its airspace, the United States is leaving Iraq behind at a precarious period when it is not yet able to defend itself.
American allies, such as Israel, are similarly nervous about the precipitous departure. A weak and America-less Iraq will have demonstrably negative consequences for Israel’s security environment. First, no country with an American military presence has attacked Israel. U.S. forces stationed in Turkey, Egypt, and the Gulf States have deterred or prevented those states from embarking on military action. In fact, the presence of U.S. forces has generally signaled the strategic orientation of those countries, first as anti-Soviet and now as anti-Iranian.
Second, the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq has restored Israel’s eastern frontier to that of the Saddam era: the Iraqi-Jordanian border. For the last eight years, American forces have acted as an additional barrier to Iranian smuggling of rockets and explosives into the West Bank, although this past summer’s IDF seizure of a rubber dinghy crossing the Dead Sea with small arms demonstrates that even this is not full-proof. As the massive arms smuggling across the Egypt-Gaza border over the last six years has demonstrated, Israel cannot afford to trust even a friendly Jordanian government to prevent the remilitarization of Palestinian groups in the West Bank. Israeli control over the Jordan Valley, the key element to Israel’s requisite defensible borders, assumes even greater importance following the American withdrawal.
Third, the strategic orientation of the new, post-America Iraq remains unclear and is more likely to be dictated by Iran. The United States is providing the Iraqi army with heavy weaponry, such as M-1 Abrams tanks, artillery, and F-16 fighters, and training Iraqi forces without being assured of Iraq’s future geopolitical compass. If Iranian control of Iraq continues unabated, then Washington will essentially be arming a new Iranian proxy. A well-equipped and well-trained Iraqi military with Iranian interests at heart could quickly turn on the Kurds, the Gulf monarchies, the Saudis, and eventually Israel. Withdrawing before being certain of the depth of Iraq’s anchor in the U.S. camp increases the security risk to U.S. allies.
Although Jerusalem is apprehensive about the American departure, there is a silver lining: American forces no longer stand in the way of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Of the three possible routes to Iran—the northern route which hugs the Turkish-Syrian border, the central route which is due east over Jordan and Iraq, and the southern route over Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf—the central route, which has always been the shortest and within the 1,000 mile range of Israeli F-15s and F-16s, has now also become the most conducive, passing through friendly Jordanian and defenseless Iraqi skies. Until now, it is unclear what U.S. forces in Iraq would have done had radar indicated an Israeli air armada streaking across Iraqi airspace. Former Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski even suggested that the U.S. shoot down Israeli planes. With the Obama administration adamantly opposed to an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, especially its airspace, has removed a major obstacle to a successful Israeli operation.
Overall, the American withdrawal from Iraq portends ill for Israel. Iranian domination of Iraq is likely to increase and the Iraqi army will be American trained and armed, but outside the American geostrategic orbit. Since much of the region sees American and Israeli strength as one and the same, any American weakness, especially during such politically uncertain times, will also largely be interpreted as a blow to Israel. Nevertheless, 2012 will mark the first time in over two decades that the United States will not control Iraqi airspace, leaving it exposed to Israeli jets heading eastward. While the long term repercussions of the American withdrawal are unfavorable, Israel may find itself with its best opening to directly confront its greatest security threat: Iran.
Gabriel Max Scheinmann, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University, focusing on international security, alliance architecture, and grand strategy. His publications have been featured in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Hudson Institute-New York.