Two days of briefings on both sides of the aisle revealed an overwhelming consensus within Congress that America is hampered by not having a coherent Middle East strategic policy.
During my meetings in Congress, what struck a chord but was not yet on their legislative radar, as Congress is usually more reactive than proactive on foreign policy, was the escalating control of Iraq by Iranian controlled militias (PMU or PMF), and the fate of the Kurds in northern Iraq.
In the aftermath of the Syrian withdrawal, almost everyone expressed the desire to remain engaged in the region with as small a presence as possible to advance our goals, similar to the small footprint we had in northern Syria that blocked the Iranian land bridge to the Mediterranean. Now our boots on the ground have left in the aftermath of the infamous Trump-Erdogan phone call, turning 100,000 American trained allied SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces opposed to Assad) troops into part of the Syrian army.
Now that the damage of the Syrian withdrawal is a fait accompli, can Congress move the needle and make a difference in American policy?
Foreign policy is primarily the purview of the President; however, Congress does have the power to impose sanctions, control American taxpayer money, and voice its strong opinions for Americans and the world to hear.
A bipartisan letter of support to our Kurdish allies in northern Iraq is needed to calm their jittery nerves. Kurdistan in northern Iraq is a zone of pro-American stability, borders Iran and Turkey, and is vital to American interests. We need to preclude the possibility that the President could sell them out and force them to make a deal for survival with Iran, much like the Syrian Kurds were forced to do with the Syrian regime.
A primary American goal to advance our foreign policy interests should be to bring to light Iran’s growing entrenchment in Iraq using its Hezbollah model of marrying Iranian controlled militias (PMU or PMF) with members of Parliament who are under their control. In Iraq this has been implemented through the Badr organization which controls the largest militia, al-Hashd al-Shabi, and second largest Iraqi political party Fatah.
According to the Washington Institute’s Phillip Smyth the ‘militia/party model that Hezbollah has long used in Lebanon… function(s) as the most powerful element of direct Iranian influence in the Iraqi political sphere.” They are dominant players in Iraqi foreign and domestic policy.As George Friedman of Geopolitical Futures wrote, “pro-Iran groups advocate and fight to further Iran’s interests regardless of whether they conflict with the interests of Iraq.“ How would Americans feel if they knew that directly or indirectly our taxpayer monies allocated to the Iraqi government may be ending up in the hands of Iranian controlled Iraqi militias with more blood on their hands than the US sanctioned Hezbollah terrorist entity.
According to George Friedman, former Prime Minister al-Maliki legislated “the formation of the PMF Commission, which administers Iraqi state funds for PMF groups (Iranian controlled Iraqi militias). Iran also discreetly funds some of these groups, and many pro-Iran militia leaders today occupy important positions within the Iraqi government, giving them substantial control over funding decisions… and even battle plans.”The Council on Foreign Relations reported that as of October 2018, the US was providing 5.3 billion dollars to Iraq. We need to know, how much of our money is going to Iranian controlled Iraqi militias? In the past, Congress passed legislation through the defense authorization bill imposing sanctions on some of the most notorious Iranian controlled militias, like Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH).
However, the largest militias are controlled by the Badr organization which is not sanctioned.
How can we square the circle that Iranian controlled militias have been legally integrated within the Iraqi military for the past two years without any of the hoped for moderation that was supposed to happen?
Without sanctioning all of the Iranian controlled militias, we have no hope of loosening the grip of the Iranian octopus in Iraq, where we have lost so much blood and treasure over the last 16 years.
However, some Senate offices worry that the leader of Badr could become the next Iraqi PM and rationalize that it would be counterproductive to sanction him now. Yet today Congress is willing to personally sanction Erdogan after the attack in Syrian Kurdistan.
If we want to advance US interests we should sanction the whole Badr organization, which would focus American money to truly moderate Shiite Iraqi groups, or at least ones not directly controlled by Iran.
If Hezbollah, an Iranian controlled proxy, became part of the Lebanese armed forces would we continue to fund the Lebanese Armed Forces. In Iraq, we fund the Iraqi government where both Iraqi members of Parliament and militias are controlled by Iran, and we don’t know where our taxpayer dollars really go.
On a humanitarian level, displaced Iraqi minorities cannot return to their homes because the Iranian controlled militias are in control of their former homes. Empowering the Iraqi government means funding the parts of the Iraqi government and military that are not associated in any way shape or form with Iran.
The President has said that Iran is our primary enemy in the region. This would be a time for him to act as a fiscal watchdog, and work with Congress on sanctions against all Iranian controlled militias in Iraq.
According to Reuters, Iranian backed militias deployed snipers in Iraq killing scores of protestors this month. How would the President respond to the question, why is America funding Iran’s militias in Iraq who are shooting Iraqi civilians, and preventing Christian and Yazidi minorities from returning to their homes? It is time for Congress to be pro-active and not wait for the President to make the next foreign policy faux pas. A return to Senator Rand Paul isolationism in a fortress America with no physical presence in the Middle East is not a realistic strategy to keep radical Islam away from our homeland. We haven’t had any significant Islamist terrorism here, because we are still engaged over there.
It is incumbent for Congress to step up and get ahead of an impulsive President before the next self-inflicted calamity occurs in the Middle East.
The author is the founder and director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political and Information Network.