After losing all hope that the US and its allies would save Iraq from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIL), and heartened by the actions of televised Russian military intervention on behalf of Syria against ISIL, Baghdad is now taking under serious consideration a formal request to the Russian Federation to lend it a helping hand in the fight against ISIL terrorists.
To obtain this goal Baghdad has sent an official request to Moscow to strike terrorist infrastructure with bombs and cruise missiles within Iraqi territory. It would also make a big difference for Russia if it was capable of deploying its aircraft from within Iraqi territory,as it has been demonstrated in Syria where air strikes have been far more effective when launched from local bases. In this case, Russia would be able to provide close air support for Iraqi ground troops, while coordinating with Iraqi spotters and Iranian drones. In the case of Iraq Russia could make good use of its strategic bombers which are capable of destroying heavily fortified positions in the areas of Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul.
The first signs that Moscow and Baghdad are moving towards cooperation are already visible. It’s evident by statements made by senior officials of the the two states. In addition, in early October, representatives of Iraq’s armed forces announced that they had signed an agreement on the exchange of intelligence data with Iran, Russia and Syria. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said a few days ago that he cannot exclude the possibility that Iraq will turn to Russia for further aid. A truly influential Iraqi Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on the international community to take an active part in the fight against ISIL, while hinting that he too has nothing against Russia’s involvement. On October 5 Russia’s Chairman of the Federal Assembly Valentina Matviyenko said that Moscow was ready to consider a request to strike positions of the Islamic State in Iraq, if such a request was received.
So far, the only constraining factor – is the fact that the sitting government of Hamid al-Abadi was a compromise between Tehran and Washington – therefore it has to proceed with caution while keeping an eye on US interests. A lot will depend on Iran and the development of the situation in Iraq itself. After all, under the blows of Russian aircraft, ISIL militants and other terrorist organizations have begun fleeing Syria, heading to the Iraq city of Mosul and the Al Anbar Governorate. This fact poses a threat to the ruling Iraqi government, which is unable to deal with tens of thousands of armed terrorists on its own. Iraq army forces, who had been trained by American instructors, proved incapable of repelling Islamist forces back in 2014. Moreover, soldiers that over decades grew accustomed to Russian weapons, that are generally more practical and easy to use than the expensive and complicated American equivalents, found themselves in a difficult spot. Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi during his visit to Moscow stated that in the struggle that Iraqi forces were facing, Russian weapons were proven to be the best. Khaled al-Obeidi said that while the US would be able to replace such weapons, Russia seemed to be more willing to provide support in a “war of attrition” in which Iraq is in constant need of large supplies of weapons.
In this situation, Baghdad is turning to Russia for help, as it has always done in moments of dire need. For example, Baghdad has repeatedly appealed to Russia for additional weapons supplies in those moments when, in its opinion, the efforts of the United States were no longer producing results. Back in 2013, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed an agreement with Russia on the supply of 4.2 billion worth of weapons after the US postponed the delivery of F-16 fighters to Iraq – in part because of fears that Maliki perhaps could use them against the Sunnis. After what has seemed to be a fruitless trip to the US in April 2015, the sitting Prime Minister of Iraq went to Russia to request new shipments of weapons, including helicopters, and Moscow promptly fulfilled that request.
The American media has already been reporting the fact that an increasing number Iraqi forces prefer to cooperate with Russia, due to the fact that Moscow does not pose the restrictions that Washington’s representatives are so fond of. Thus, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already stated that Russia is ready to provide sophisticated weapons to Iraq without any political conditions – in contrast, he added, to ‘other’ arms suppliers.
The crucial role is played by the fact that, aside from the official military establishment, Iraqi Shia militants have been vocal in supporting Russia’s involvement in Iraq. One of the commanders of the Badr Brigade said that his group would show strong support for Russian air strikes in Iraq. A representative of yet another group – Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, pointed out that his group showed full support to the strengthening role of Russia in the conflict against Islamists, in the wake of the inadequate US response. According to the same representative, Americans have been regularly inconsistent in dealing with both the Sunnis and Shiites. Washington started off with completely expelling all Sunnis from the army and security structures only to make an attempt to reverse this situation when they recognized their mistake, provoking sectarian tensions.
Thus, the United States decided that in order to gain the trust of local Sunnis groups in the campaign against ISIL they were to push the Shia’a back – and for a while they kept Shia’a forces at a distance in Ramadi After the murders and attacks committed by these groups during the storming of Tikrit and the surrounding area, the United States openly expressed their concern over the need to prevent Shia’a troops from forming sectarian tensions in the Al Anbar Governorate. However, without creating Sunni military units that would be both willing and able to fight ISIL, the only result they would get would be a sharp decline in the effectiveness of the campaign against this terrorist organization.
The US is also being criticized for its overly cautious tactics of ineffective air strikes and slow delivery of military equipment to the Iraqi military. For months the Obama administration has been discussing the possibility of training Iraqi spotters as one of the ways to enhance the effectiveness of the US coalition air strikes. However, Americans are very concerned about the risk of striking wrong targets due to the language barrier between Iraqi soldiers and American pilots. Those risks have already led to an error committed by American pilots when a hospital run by Doctors without Borders was hit by bombs in the Afghan city of Kunduz on October 3. But without the use of Iraqi spotters that can adjust target acquisition, the US will lose one of its main operational advantages in the fight against ISIL in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Washington’s mistakes are only leading to the ever growing importance of Russia’s assistance in the region, which is leading to the ousting of the US as an influence from the region. It seems that a Russia – Iran – Iraq -Syria alliance is going to be established soon, an alliance that will be capable of defeating ISIL terrorists in a finite time period and force them out into the neighboring nations of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the very states that gave rise to the threat of the Islamic State in the first place.
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.