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Global Actors in Iraq’s Neighbourhood: Policies and Long-term Strategies

MERI Forum 2021: Session 5 summary report and video link.

  • Jennifer Gavito, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran and Iraq, Department of State, USA
  • Elbrus Kutrashev, Russian Ambassador to Iraq
  • Adil Bakawan, Director of the French Center for Research on Iraq
  • Tanya Gilli-Khaylani, Former Member of Iraqi Parliament (Moderator)

Click here to view the video recording

In this panel, policies and long-term strategies of the US, Russia and France as three global actors in Iraq’s neighbourhood were discussed.

Jennifer Gavito was the first to outline her country’s strategies in the Middle East, stating: “President Biden has been reinvigorating American diplomacy, rebuilding alliances with our partners, and helping citizens of all over the world, realised their aspiration for a better future. Our engagement in the middle east is really anchored in these values. Building partnerships, we have been focused on regional prosperity and values that bring respect and dignity for all peoples, and also focused on policies that lead to greater innovation and opportunity which we believe are bases for long-term regional stability”.

Gavito emphasised that the new US foreign policy is reorienting to address the global challenges that are going to define the future, such as climate change. Regarding the long-term strategies of the US in the region, she said that, “we believe it is in our common interest to advance policies that end conflict, fight corruption, promote human rights, and create jobs while preserving climate for our future generations. The United States intends to collaborate as much as possible with our friends in the Middle East to solve the various regional and global challenges that are facing us. Throughout the region, including the gulf, our relationships are rooted in joint efforts to promote regional security and stability, to promote bilateral trade and investment, and to expand meaningful people-to-people ties”. She also added: “We [the US] depend on this relationship in our partnerships in the Middle East to address things like COVID-19, help developing the infrastructure to prevent future pandemics, to counter terrorism, to deescalate regional tensions, to reduce conflict, to address desertification and water shortages, and to build a new energy economy to arrest the drivers of climate change”. Only in 2019, the US has committed $157 Billion in trade with the region. Since 2003, the US has supported Iraq in many different areas. Just to name one example, the US contributed 10 Million USD to UNAMI for holding the recent Iraqi elections.

Elbrus Kutrashev, the Russian Ambassador to Iraq stated that Russia enjoys good relations with most of the Middle Eastern countries. The Middle East is a close region to Russia and has direct impacts on its neighbouring countries in terms of security and stability. For Russia, the first priorities in the region are having good political dialogues and political relationships with the Middle Easter countries and promoting stability and security in the area. Iraq is not the priority number one for Russia. He explained: “What we look at in terms of [Russian foreign policy] priority now, I won’t hide it from you, is first of all Syria and Libya. They are major concerns to us in terms of regional security and stability, and even threats and challenges to the international security and stability. Then we of course monitor closely and actively the situation in Lebanon and in Yemen.” Kutrashev made it clear that Russia does not interfere in internal affairs of Iraq and steps away from internal struggles. According to Kutrashev, Russia, through its large oil companies, has invested $14 Billion in Iraq.

According to Adil Bakawan, President Macron of France changed the French foreign policy in the region by focusing more on Iraq and making it the center of the Middle East. Security and geopolitics of Iraq are important for France because it has direct impact on the region as Iraq neighbors Iran and Turkey. These two countries are important for France as well. Bakawan also mentioned that economy is another reason for France to focus more on Iraq. After Macron’s visit to Iraq, an agreement of $27 Billion was signed between France and Iraq. The issue of Syria is another reason for France to make Iraq a center for its foreign policy in the region because Iraq’s land is the only pathway to Syria. Bakawan also discussed the nation building process in Iraq over the last one hundred years, and described it as a failure. He believed that “the chance of creating an Iraqi nation is very weak, but it can be solved. We as Europeans, Americans and Russians, can help Iraqi to find a better form…. it to govern their country.”

Jennifer Gavito later described Iran’s role in the region as negative, especially in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and emphasized that the US with its allies try to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapon.  She said that the US has very strong ties and trade relationship with the Gulf countries. This is vital for the prosperity, development and security of the region. Not only the US, Gulf countries also recognize the centrality of Iraq for the regional security and its positive role in the region.

Ambassador Kutrashev stated that Russia enjoys good relationships with the Gulf countries too. As for the Iranian role in the region, he clearly stated that “those who are unhappy about Iranian influence in the region, especially in some countries, should think about not confronting this Iranian influence, but dealing with reasons for which Iran is playing such a big role, for example in Syria”.  Adil Bakawan concurred with Kutrasheve and added that it is in the interest of all the countries in the region to reach an agreement with Iran to resolve current problems in the Middle East. “Confronting Iran is not in the interest of the Middle East ….. in order to achieve peace in the Middle East, we need to reach a compromise with Iran.”

Gavito reiterated in her remarks that the US will stay in Iraq and is going to support to overcome its problems. She also asserted that the US focuses on Iraqi Kurdistan as being central to the overall stability of Iraq. To respond to people’s concerns in Iraq following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Gavito explicitly stated that “Iraq is not Afghanistan. We are here for the long term. We view Iraq as a key strategic key strategic partner ….  We are committed to that relationship as strategic basis for stability and security throughout the Middle East”.

Regarding Syrian Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), the Russian Ambassador Kutrashev stated that Russia mediates between SDF and Damascus to reach an agreement. ‌He added: “We are now facilitating negotiations between Rojava and the Syrian government. It is a very complicated process and our Ambassador in Damascus is authorised to play the mediator role…Both sides are quite tough. They are not easy negotiators. But we manage to persuade them and they understand that. They need to agree because any other option will not be good for [either] of them. But still, it seems to me that the process is moving slowly because they do not trust each other”.

Jennifer Gavito from US State Department also talked about Syrian regime and described it as “illegitimate” because “legitimacy is granted by the people, through the citizens. Any [government] that uses torture as a method and chemical weapons on its own people, it is not a legitimate government”. Kutrashev responded by arguing that if Asad is gone, the alternative would have been either Abubakir Al-Baghdad or Al-Nusra. Regarding Russia’s relations with the Kurdistan Region, Kutrasheve  said that “the Kurds are our friends since long ago and we would be happy to play any kind of role you need… and Russia is ready to cooperate”.

On the issue of returning the ISIS-children to Europe, Bakhawan commented that there is no an EU policy or unity among EU members on how to deal with these children.

Click here to view the video recording of the panel discussions at MERI Forum 2021.

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