Closing Arguments: US Lingers in Iraq, Myanmar Slips Into Civil War

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US-Iraq: Troop Withdrawal Long on Theory, Short on Detail The US and Iraqi governments have recently completed the most recent round of negotiations on the terms and conditions for a complete withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq, a process that was initiated under the administration of former President Donald Trump. Pressure for a US withdrawal has mounted inside Iraq since the US' assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iraq's most senior Shiite militia leader, in Baghdad in January 2020. But the US has so far slow-rolled the process to the extent that it can, wary of ceding any advantage to the pro-Iranian Shiite militias that play a dominant role in Iraq, and of losing a foothold that supports US military operations in neighboring Syria. The initial justification for the redeployment of US combat forces to Iraq in 2014 -- the emergence of the Islamic State as a regional threat -- has been largely eliminated following the jihadist group's military defeat. But US forces deployed in northeastern Syria depend on the operational and logistical support provided by the US' military positioning in Iraq. That reality has led to a situation in which the US and Iraqi governments have agreed in principle to a total withdrawal of US combat forces, but without providing for any specific time frame. The sensitivity over the role of US forces also arises from the fact that, absent Islamic State as a focus, the mission of the roughly 2,500 US troops in Iraq had gravitated away from a combat role, a move embraced by the Iraqi government. But it also shifted toward an anti-Iranian posture, which became politically unsustainable following the assassinations of Soleimani and al-Muhandis. The question of roles and missions for the Iraq-based US combat forces, however, is complicated by the evolving situation in neighboring Syria, where the US maintains a force of several hundred combat troops that is only viable with support from the US military presence in Iraq. US troops in Syria are critical to supporting the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That means any discussion of the timing of a US withdrawal from Iraq ultimately revolves around the US military commitment in Syria. Based upon Biden's apparent willingness to walk away from Afghanistan by Sep. 11, 2021, without any entangling commitments, sustaining the current US support for Syrian Kurds may no longer be an absolute. For now, expect the two sides to put off any definitive agreement until after Iraqi elections, currently scheduled for October 2021, where the election outcome could either lesson or increase the pressure for a troop withdrawal. Myanmar: Collapse Into Civil War Nearly 2½ months after the military seized power in Myanmar in a coup, massive anti-junta demonstrations have prompted bloody reprisals by security forces, leading to an escalation in violence that the UN high commissioner for human rights has warned is heading toward a “full-blown conflict” echoing that which took place in Syria in 2011. This assessment comes as the various anti-junta factions have begun talks to form a unified militarized response capable of confronting the Myanmar armed forces in open combat. Myanmar’s collapse into full-scale civil war has also created a geopolitical vacuum. But in the increasingly zero-sum game being played on a global scale between the US on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other, the opposing sides are positioning themselves to bring Myanmar into their respective fold. Myanmar has faced internal insurrections from more than 40 separate groups since it was granted independence from the UK in 1948. This nonstop fighting -- primarily between various ethnic minorities and the majority Bamar population (which dominates the composition of the armed forces, making it a de facto militia for that ethnic group) -- not only helped transform the Myanmar military into one of the most combat-experienced organizations in Southeast Asia, but also politicized its leadership, which seized power in a coup in 1962. While under military rule, Myanmar’s foreign relations were generally strained. The US and Europe imposed economic sanctions in 1988 in the aftermath of a crackdown on dissent by the military government. However, China, together with Russia, continued to trade with Myanmar, and the two became the largest suppliers of military equipment to the Myanmar armed forces. Relations with the West improved when the military turned power over to a democratically elected government in 2010. The military initially dominated this government via proxy, having formed its own political organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The USDP, however, lost support over time, with the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, winning a majority in 2015 elections -- although circumstances meant she governed under a power-sharing arrangement with the military. Indeed, it was the poor performance on the part of the USDP -- and the relatively strong showing by the NLD -- in November elections that prompted the military to stage the February 2021 coup. Given the close ties between the majority Bamar population and the military, the armed forces are more loyal to their respective commanders than they are to any notion of the state. This has created a situation where renewed economic isolation, coupled with increased insurrection by non-Bamar ethnic minorities, could lead to the collapse of central authority -- with Myanmar breaking up into localized fiefdoms ruled by military officers serving as regional warlords. While China continues its economic engagement with the Myanmar junta, it is Russia that has emerged as a critical player when it comes to sustaining the political integrity of the Myanmar military by engaging in high-level diplomacy coupled with increased arms sales. As the internal situation in Myanmar continues to deteriorate, the struggle for Myanmar’s future will be increasingly defined by a conflict between the sanctions-based policies of the West and the direct engagement policies of Russia and China.

Security Risk , Sanctions, Alternative View
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