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Influential US Senator Lindsey Graham is on a tour of the Middle East

Influential US Senator Lindsey Graham is on a tour of the Middle East, visiting Turkey, eastern Syria, and Iraq in recent days, as he seeks to shore up US relationships. 

The South Carolina Senator, who is outspoken on US foreign policy and a supporter of a strong national defense, has had a close but sometimes frayed relationship with US President Donald Trump. Graham, who met with US partners in eastern Syria and with the Kurdish autonomous region’s prime minister in Iraq, is well-placed to stabilize US policy in the region.

A former air force officer, he has served in the Senate since 2003 and chairs a subcommittee dealing with the State Department, army personnel and crime and terrorism. The senator, an outspoken supporter of Israel, was last in the region when he visited Jerusalem for the opening of the US Embassy in May.

He is well-placed to play a key role in US relationships with Iraq, Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in eastern Syria. In Turkey, Graham and Senator Jeanne Shaheen of Vermont met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, becoming the highest-level US delegation to meet the Turkish president since he won reelection as president in June. Erdogan has secured sweeping new presidential powers but his relationship with the US has been strained due to numerous controversies. 

Several US senators, including Shaheen, have sought to block F-35 aircraft sales to Turkey partly because Ankara is growing closer to Russia. Graham and Shaheen discussed Turkey’s detention of US pastor Andrew Brunson.

“Very good, respectful, and candid meeting with President Erdogan. We have real differences but far more in common. Turkey needs to be a strategic partner for the US in a win-win fashion,” Graham tweeted on June 29. The tweet, that appeared to represent a conciliatory US stance caused concern among some US partners in eastern Syria, including Kurds affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are a component of the SDF. 

Ankara has accused the YPG of being connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it views as a terrorist organization. In January, Turkey sent troops into the Afrin region of Syria to push the YPG away from the border and Turkish officials have threatened to move on Manbij, an area in Syria east of the Euphrates that is controlled by US partners among the SDF.

This controversy has put the US in the awkward position of being an ally of Turkey but also working with those Turkey considers an enemy. Ankara has been hosting Iranian officials and Russia more often in the last year, signaling what some in Washington see as a slow trend of turning away from the West. Graham’s visit was designed to address these issues and sound out Erdogan on Turkey’s moves.

In Manbij, Graham met with the local council and said it was important for the US to stay there and that he would tell Trump that the US should continue to help its friends in eastern Syria. “If we leave it will be terrible,” he said. “I will tell the story of Manbij to my colleagues; it is a place of hope in a region that needs hope.”

According to locals, he met with Abu Adel, the head of the Manbij Military Council. Manbij was liberated from Islamic State in 2016 after a bloody battle that also saw several American volunteers with the YPG die fighting ISIS.

In June, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wanted to discuss a “road map” for Manbij that would see Turkish patrols near the city. 

Turkey launched a military operation called Euphrates Shield in Syria in the fall of 2016, ostensibly to clear ISIS from the border but also to counter the SDF offensive from Manbij, which Ankara was concerned would seek to link up with Afrin. This created a complex puzzle of tensions whereby the US-led anti-ISIS coalition partner of the SDF almost clashed with Turkey, a NATO-ally of the US. Since then, Washington has sought calm in Manbij. Graham warned Turkey against further incursions in Syria. 

After his meetings in Manbij, Graham traveled to Erbil, in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region, where he met Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani on July 3. “Pleased to receive my friend,” Barzani tweeted. He looked forward to “improving the already excellent ties between the Kurdistan Region and the US.” Graham’s delegation included US Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman and Deputy Commander of the Coalition Maj.-Gen. Walter Piatt, according to local reports. He also toured Mosul, which was liberated from ISIS a year ago, with Iraqi Gen. Najim al-Jabouri.  

Graham’s visit to eastern Syria, Turkey, and Iraq is aimed at shoring up an arc of stability that stretches from Ankara to Baghdad and was once destabilized by ISIS. These are areas where ISIS exploited the power vacuum of ungoverned spaces in 2014 to sweep down the Euphrates valley and take over parts of Iraq and Syria, committing genocide against minorities.

The US intervened in August 2014 to stem the rise of the black flag, but the 70-member coalition is still fighting ISIS and Syria and Iraq’s security forces engage in almost daily raids against the extremists. Graham told journalist Chuck Todd and NBC on July 1 that the US “allowed ISIS to rise by leaving Iraq” and, according to a local report, later told US diplomats in Iraq that the Iraqi army had been rebuilt and the US presence should remain if the Iraqi government wants it to.

The question after his visit is how to knit together disparate US allies. Iraq still has no governing coalition after cleric Muqtada al-Sadr came in first in the May elections. Al-Sadr and other Shi’ite parties, some of which are close Iran allies, have been critical of the US presence and some formerly fought the US. 

In eastern Syria, the US has not sketched out a post-ISIS goal, besides stabilization. Graham appears to think the US should stay for the long term. In Turkey, the US policy is unclear on whether to use pressure or conciliatory gestures to work with Erdogan. As conflicts wind down in places like Syria, trips like Graham’s take on greater significance for US policy in the region.

Seth Frantzman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum