US President Donald Trump's Syria withdrawal hit a snag in northern Iraq as the country indicated that US troops only have permission to transit, temporarily, into northern Iraq before leaving. Convoys of Americans leaving Syria were spotted in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq on Monday. Now, Iraq's government appears to be telling the Americans that they can't stay in Iraq either.
"All US forces that withdrew from Syria received approval to enter the Kurdistan Region so that they may be transported outside Iraq," the Iraqi military said, according to Reuters. "There is no permission granted for these forces to stay inside Iraq."
When Trump first announced a Syria withdrawal in December 2018, he flew to Iraq and told US soldiers that the US would use Iraq to "watch" Iran. This caused controversy in Iraq where politicians said the US had no mandate to watch Iran from Iraq or stoke tensions with Tehran. The US has a narrow mission in Iraq, to train, advise and equip Iraqi soldiers to fight ISIS.
Iraq wants to assert itself now and not allow further US mission creep. It doesn't want US soldiers leaving Syria to seek out a new mission in Iraq that isn't narrowly tailored solely to support Iraqi Security Forces. Already the presence of US soldiers is controversial among pro-Iranian members of Iraq's parliament who have suggested evicting the Americans.
The statement in Iraq comes on the eve of a new round of protests that may erupt this weekend. In addition it appears to undermine US Defense Secretary Mark Esper's belief that US forces could reposition to Iraq. The US administration has never bothered to consult any of its partners in the region about the Syria withdrawal which has left countries like Iraq feeling that the US doesn't respect them. For instance when Trump travelled to Iraq in December 2018 he didn't bother to meet any Iraqis. Similarly the US has never spoken to any of the 100,000 Syrian Democratic Forces members it trained about its decision to withdraw.
US policy has generally avoided discussing anything with anyone in the Middle East, preferring to let local leaders learn about US policy through Twitter, because the current US administrations doesn't appear to feel most of the countries in the region deserve to be informed, like allies or equals. As such, Baghdad seems to be trolling the US withdrawal, mocking it and asserting its own right to be a sovereign country, not a place that the Americans can just use as they see fit. This is the blowback that Trump's policies are now receiving. Decades after most countries in the region signed on to a US coalition against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, nations are shutting doors on the US and telling them it's time to leave places like Syria and that its forces may not be welcome in Iraq. There is a sense that with a US president seeking isolationism, all that needs to be done is to pressure the US a little more in places like Iraq, and US forces will leave.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.