Theresa May became, on Wednesday, the first British Prime Minister to visit Iraq in almost a decade after the latest visit by Gordon Brown in 2008. May visited military installations in the country, where UK military personnel are helping to train local forces, and held talks with her counterpart, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
After stepping off the RAF Hercules C-130 aircraft at the Taji base, May visited the 80 or so British troops stationed on the base. The UK has about 600 troops in Iraq, almost all involved in training the Iraqi Security Forces and not involved in a direct combat role. May observed Royal Engineers training Iraqi Security Forces in how to detect and remove IEDs, many of whom took part in the brutal Battle for Mosul against ISIS.
“I have spoken today to one of the Iraqi soldiers who was involved in the action in Mosul, but we need to continue to work with the Iraqi forces to ensure that they are able to provide the security and stability for the country in future,” said May to reporters after.
While May’s counterpart, Abadi, hailed the visit as “proof of the United Kingdom’s support in the fight against Daesh [ISIS],” after a bi-lateral meeting, May spoke about the critical period the war against ISIS has entered.
“In Iraq, we’re working together to defeat Daesh and my visit comes at a critical moment as we see the Caliphate collapsing with the fall of Mosul and Raqqa,” she said afterwards.
“We must recognize that the threat remains and we must obviously deal with the issue of potentially people from Daesh dispersing elsewhere.”
“It’s about addressing the terrorist threat across a whole range of aspects we need to deal with, including for example, access to the internet.”
Coinciding with her visit, Downing Street announced an extra £10 million in funding to boost Iraq’s anti-terror capability, and to meet the needs dealing with the evolving threats pushed forward by terror groups.
“We need to continue to work with the Iraqi forces to ensure that they are able to provide the security and stability for the country in future,” May said to Sky News.
“It is also about dealing with the terrorist threat in all the ways we can. That includes, for example, working to ensure that their hateful material is not being spread across the internet and inspiring others to conduct attacks.”
While it was announced that the prime minister would be visiting the Middle East, the precise details were kept secret for security reasons. Her trip to Iraq is followed by a trip to Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, where it is expected talks will focus on the Saudi military campaign in Yemen.
“I am very concerned about the humanitarian crisis that has developed in Yemen, particularly most recently,” said May to the BBC. “One strong message I will be giving to Saudi Arabia tonight is that we want to see Hodeida port opened for humanitarian and commercial access; that is important.”
May’s emphasis on maintaining support for Iraq in the evolving battle against ISIS was welcoming, yet expected. However, as U.S. representatives recently spoke about the U.S. turning its back on its allies in the war against ISIS, most notably the Kurds, who proved themselves more effective allies than the disintegrated Iraqi Army, the position of the UK is reassuring.
Importantly, May highlighted that countering ISIS’s campaign of psychological warfare will be the biggest hurdle in overcoming its reach and appeal.
The multi-language, multi-platform propaganda approach adopted by ISIS stands in sharp contrast to that used by al-Qaeda in the past. The once blurry videotapes have been replaced by High Definition, tech-savvy videos covering a breadth of subjects.
Videos depicting atrocities run wild on social media platforms, and convey an image of unrestricted power – appealing to many people who feel unsatisfied and disenfranchised with society, and the desire to appease a higher calling.
While non-military prevention will be central in the coming years as ISIS’s insurgency continues, Iraqi unity will be the single most important factor deciding stability. Iraq – and Syria – must be prepared to deal with this threat, which will focus on inflaming sectarian divisions and dragging the country back to the fractured state which allowed ISIS to capture vast swathes of the country.
However, if the UK truly wants to be part of the solution in Iraq, the scope needs to be beyond ISIS; to Iraq’s eastern neighbor.
Iran is consolidating its sphere of influence through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon towards the Mediterranean, and notably in Yemen also, cementing the so-called Shia crescent.
Representing the Iraqi branch of Iran’s web of loyal proxies groups throughout the region, groups in Iraq such Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq have served Tehran’s interests during the U.S.-led occupation, and continue to do so to this day under the auspices of Hashd al-Shaabi.
Hashd al-Shaabi militia groups represent the most prominent threat to Iraqi stability, and threaten to destabilize the region. In Iraq, they act as an independent, yet partially legitimized army which works in parallel with the regular army. Since Hashd al-Shaabi elements provide much needed support to the Iraqi Army, reducing its influence will be a political and social nightmare.
While ISIS presents a threat through asymmetrical warfare and unconventional means, the Iranian-backed Hashd Shaabi has made headway in cementing their position in the formal Iraqi military structure. In just 35 years, Hezbollah – Iran’s most effective proxy – has transformed from a loose collection of militia, to holding almost total political control of Lebanon. In just three years, the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi rose to be on an equal par with the Iraqi Army, which is in some way through its successful road to recovery, ringing alarm bells throughout the region.
The UK and the international community need to work towards driving change in the military structures in the country. Reducing Tehran’s influence in Iraq is a fundamental and complex challenge for Prime Minister Abadi, and all those interested in creating stability in the region.