Iraq: Packing the Baghdad
Also: Israel, Palestine, India, Pakistan, the Caucasus, and the US.
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IRAQ. Packing the Baghdad
Washington weighs its options after 20 years.
Iraq and the US will shortly begin talks on the withdrawal of US troops, Pentagon officials said Thursday, adding the US warned Iran of IS attacks in January. The US carried out further strikes on Iranian-backed targets in Iraq on Tuesday.
INTELLIGENCE. Recent tit-for-tat strikes between US forces and Iran-backed militants in Iraq have come at a rising cost to the Pentagon as the rationale for staying in the country becomes increasingly obscure. Iraqi politicians have called on the US to depart on numerous occasions, but its help against remnant Islamic State forces has always won the argument. Should the US this time agree to leave, Tehran and its Shia proxies will have to face the terrorists alone.
FOR BUSINESS.Iran will judge the symbolic exit of the US’s 2,500 remaining troops will trump any counter-terrorism considerations. Washington may judge its efforts will be better spent elsewhere in the Middle East – particularly as Iraq leans closer to adversaries like Iran and Russia, whose firms have won favour in recent energy deals. Yet during a US election year, any exit will invariably invite comparisons with the Biden Administration’s 2021 retreat from Kabul.
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ISRAEL. PALESTINE. The spy who met me
The CIA chief convenes a gathering on Gaza’s hostages.
The CIA's director will meet his Israeli and Egyptian counterparts in the coming days, sources told Reuters Thursday. Israel's defence minister finished talks in Washington, where a major new arms deal was said to be under discussion.
INTELLIGENCE. Washington is in a bind as to how to support its ally while restraining it against Gazan civilians. By inserting itself more prominently into hostage negotiations, which Qatar’s prime minister will also join, it may gain more political leverage over Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government faces rising anger from hostage families and the public. Qatar has meanwhile hit back at Netanyahu, who was recorded this week criticising Doha’s links to Hamas.
FOR BUSINESS. Washington also faces a domestic bind. Some 49 of 51 Senate Democrats backed a statement on Wednesday calling for a two-state solution. More than a third of Americans and 49% of Democrat voters believe Israel is committing genocide – something the International Court of Justice will make a preliminary ruling on in the coming hours. As Donald Trump rises in the polls, Israel is an issue that could limit the turnout of Joe Biden’s base.
INDIA. PAKISTAN. Killer lines
Attempts to embarrass Modi will have little bearing.
Islamabad accused Delhi on Thursday of running a “sophisticated and sinister” campaign of “extraterritorial and extrajudicial killings” inside Pakistan. Emmanuel Macron arrived in India for a state visit, just as Texas’s governor left.
INTELLIGENCE. While Pakistan linked its claims to the alleged assassination and attempted assassination of Sikh activists in Canada and the US, the charges will have minimal impact. Islamabad lacks the credibility of Ottawa in the West and most governments and investors, for now, are willing to look past the issue while bigger geopolitical games are at play. Both Texas and France are hoping to secure investment. France also plans to sign a major defence deal.
FOR BUSINESS. Assassination claims will continue to complicate India's ties with the West – a court in Prague ruled last week that an Indian national could be extradited over charges of attempting to kill a Sikh separatist in New York – but India won’t be the first country the West will forgive for the sake of strategic or economic interests. For Pakistan, once closer to the West, the hypocrisy will gall. Yet whereas India now promises riches, Pakistan is in perma-crisis.
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THE CAUCASUS. Crossroad purposes
Realignments settle as a new transit corridor forms.
Azerbaijan left the Parliament Assembly of the Council of Europe on Wednesday, ahead of a vote to expel it. The Kremlin said Azerbaijan would continue to host Russian troops in the former ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
INTELLIGENCE. Russia’s pivot to Azerbaijan in recent months has been almost as dramatic as Azerbaijan’s takeover of Karabakh after decades of Armenian occupation. With shared energy and transport interests – not to mention views on human rights – Baku will likely be a stabler partner for Moscow than Yerevan, which has grown closer to the West. A key test will be the signing of an Azeri-Armenian peace treaty, provisionally agreed in Russia in December.
FOR BUSINESS. Both sides are bickering over the governance of transit corridors between Azerbaijan and Turkey, which could run through Georgia, Armenia or Iran, but a deal is in reach, with the economic benefits seen to outweigh the political costs. Peace in the Caucasus will be a relief for Western airlines, which use the region as a way to avoid Russian and Iranian airspace. The deal will, however, likely raise the ire of Europe’s influential Armenian diaspora.
UNITED STATES. Deep in the heart
Texas is at the centre of divisions that could determine the election.
Texan officials said Thursday they would not comply with a deadline to give Federal authorities access to an area along the Mexico border. Texas continued to add razor wire along the border despite a Supreme Court order on Monday..
INTELLIGENCE. Texas has struck a defiant tone, with the support of other Republican states, amid calls for Washington to take control of the National Guard. Military authorities will be unwilling to wade into what is clearly political brinksmanship – fuelled by Donald Trump’s call for Senate Republicans to drop a migration deal (which may have unlocked funding for Ukraine). It is also unclear what mileage Joe Biden will get out of exacerbating the crisis.
FOR BUSINESS. Republicans appear to have routed Biden on the border. He will look weak if he relents but weaker if migrant flows continue uninterrupted. Yet Texas is also at the heart of the Republicans’ biggest electoral weakness – abortion access. Biden has invited a Texan activist as his guest at the State of the Union in March. The issues are seen as most likely to exercise swing voters. The economy, despite impressive Q4 growth, is mostly being ignored.