01.12.2015 Author: Petr Lvov

What Fate Awaits Iraq Once ISIL Got Beaten in Syria

4534545444While Russian warplanes obliterate ISIL positions along with other terrorist organizations in Syria, targeting their Turkey-linked supply lines and oil infrastructure, the regular Syrian army, supported by Iranian special forces units and Hezbollah squads, is slowly reclaiming territory it had previously conceded. In this situation the only logical question one may ask is what should be done about ISIL and allied Islamist groups in Iraq, where the fighting stalled a couple of months ago?

After all, the better part of ISIL militants are already leaving Syria with their families to seek shelter in Iraq, knowing that they won’t stand a chance once France and Russia join their anti-terrorist efforts. At the same time the US is applying an increasing amount of pressure on Turkey in an attempt to force the closure of the Turkish-Syrian, which will block the escape route for militants bound for Europe. Turkey has been a transit point for militants all along, since they easily obtain financial support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar once they decide that they want to spread terror in Europe. Therefore, the whole “caliphate” is going to be redeployed in Iraq, occupying the western and northwestern parts of the countrylargely populated by Sunni Arabs.

Lately, analysts from the US, EU, Russia and the Arab countries have been engaged in calculations regarding all the possible scenarios for Iraq, once tens of thousands of militants move there to carry on with their criminal activities. All experts seem to agree on one thing: despite the urgent need to put an end to ISIL and other Islamist groups, the situation in Syria and Iraq differ drastically from each other.

The most striking difference is that the sitting legitimate government of Bahsar al-Assad, despite all the hardship, has manged to preserve the better part of Syria’s state institutions, including the army, police, security services, etc. As for the regime of Saddam Hussein, it was toppled back in 2003 during the US-led invasion and occupation actively supported by the United Kingdom. The ruling Ba’athist elites were replaced overnight by Iraqi collaborators of Washington only to be deposed later on by the representatives of the Shia’a majority. This led to a series of ethnic and religious conflicts which resulted in local Sunnis and Kurds being forced out from country’s political scene.

One should note that the US has managed to dispose of all of Saddam’s people in the government and security structures, while convincing the Shia’a majority that it’s “all right” to subject local Sunnis to oppression. At the same time, Washington was encouraging the Kurds of northern Iraq to undermine the authority of the central government in Baghdad. All these facts have put Iraq on the brink of the division along ethnic and religious lines. At some point the world could have easily witnessed the creation of Shia’a-stan, Sunni-stan, and Kurdistan, connected by some form of weak confederation.

And then there was a sudden appearance of a powerful “third force” – ISIL – which managed to capture 40% of Iraq’s territory in mere weeks. And here one is forced to underline what all other experts prefer to keep silent about. The phenomenon of ISIL’s strength had initially little in common with radical Islamism, in fact it was a form of consolidation of Iraqi Sunnis, whether those were officers of the former Saddam-led army or some offended Sunni tribes, that were acting behind the cover of small terrorist groups to pronounce a “caliphate”. They were forced to do it because they felt betrayed by Washington who promised them they would be represented in the government once Saddam was out the door. This situation was further aggravated by the fact that American instructors failed to prepare an effective armed force to replace the disbanded Iraqi army. As a result, the new armed forces were fleeing the battlefield en masse when faced with ISIL, leaving behind all the weapons that Washington provided them.

One must admit that the strengthening of ISIL and the weakening of the Iraqi state was aggravated by Tehran‘s actions, which opposed any attempts to allow Sunnis to get back on the political stage in Iraq, since Iran has been trying to strengthen its influence in the country exclusively through the support it provided the Shia’a. And then, out of their stupidity and short-sightedness, Saudi Arabia and Qatar decided to provide financial assistance to the Sunni militants, in order to derail both Tehran’s and Washington’s policies.

There’s little doubt that Baghdad is not nearly as sound an ally to Moscow as Damascus is. While Russia has decades of military, trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian cooperation with Syria, the Iraqi government is aiming at cooperating with Iran, since it strongly depends on its support. Iranian military presence in Iraq is a matter of paramount importance for Baghdad, just like the presence of American troops. Today there’s more than 8,500 US troops being deployed in Iraq, where they train Iraqi forces and protect American diplomatic missions, especially the US embassy in Baghdad. Additionally, one must bear in mind that there’s over 10,000 American military contractors operating in Iraq, most of them are retired US military and intelligence operatives that are tasked with the protection of American assets in the country. There’s little doubt that those are engaged in military operations, should the situation on the ground demand it. Additionally, one should remember that as soon as the tough, but charismatic former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki tried to pursue military cooperation with the Russian Federation, he was quickly replaced by a soft and obedient Haider al-Abadi.

So Russia will not be able to provide the same level of assistance to Iraq that it has been providing to Syria, since Iran, the United States and Saudi Arabia all fear that this oil-rich country will again be in the sphere of Russia’s influence, as it was the case during Saddam Hussein’s reign. After all, a country that can influence Syria and Iraq, while forming a partnership with Iran, is able to single-handedly control the entire Middle East.

It’s crucial to remember that it’s way more complicated to fight ISIL in Iraq than it is in Syria. In Syria, Russia is largely perceived as a friend, so regular army units welcome the close air support it provides them with. Yet, one must honestly acknowledge that many Sunnis in Iraq, especially among those who were loyal to Saddam, look at Russians as traitors since they failed to save them from the US-led invasion.

At the same time Iraqi oil reserves surpass those one can find in Syria, in fact it has similar or larger reserves than Saudi Arabia. In addition, it has been established that Iraq has substantial natural gas reserves, which will begin being extracted as soon as 2016. The country has a more advanced industrial potential than Syria and can become one of the most industrialized countries in the Arab World. This means that a lot of players are going to become involved in the struggle for Iraq.

The Kurdish factor is playing an important role in Iraqi policies. Local Kurds were granted autonomy back in 1992, becoming virtually independent from the central government. The years after the American occupation have only strengthened this trend, allowing Kurds to expand the territories they control into neighboring provinces. They have also stated their claim over the largest oil field in northern Iraq. The rise of ISIL has only helped them to strengthen their positions, since they’ve been turned into resilient fighters that can beat the disorganized Iraqi army hands down. The Kurdish militia – the Peshmerga – has not simply managed to stall ISIL advancement in the north of Iraq, they successfully recaptured a number of key control points such as the city of Sinjar, and they are not going to give them back to anybody – one should have no illusions over this.

At the initial stage of Russian operations in Syria, Baghdad was pretty optimistic about it, while allowing Russia to fire cruise missiles across its territory, but then it had to be become more restrained due to the pressure the United States and Tehran were applying on it. Iraq was even thinking about asking Russia to bomb Islamists that occupy a certain part of its territory.

Apparently, there’s still a lot of people that failed to realize that Washington has been dreaming to get Russia stuck in a major military engagement in the Middle East all along. Moreover, certain Russian military figures have started arguing that, since ISIL cannot be destroyed without a ground operation in Iraq, Moscow is bound to send Russian troops, that would work together with Iranian forces and US troops. And all this against the background of the escalating Russian-Turkish face-off.

The question then is what should Moscow do when the scattered forces of ISIL flee to Iraq?

The answer is simple – avoid being drawn into a large-scale ground engagement which will inevitably result in a second “Afghanistan scenario.” One should never forget the misery with which the US has left both Iraq and Afghanistan. Clearing up somebody else’s mess is an ungrateful job, especially if we are speaking about the mess that was produced by Washington’s policy of “democratization” of the Middle East. Of course, it makes sense to continue military cooperation with Iraq and even provide this country with military equipment, but only on a commercial basis. In the worst case scenario, Baghdad can still pay for weapons with oil or allow Russian companies to develop its oil fields and be engaged in major infrastructural projects that may facilitate the economic recovery of Iraq. As for the anti-terrorist center in Baghdad, Russia can carry on sharing intelligence information in the fight against ISIL, while bringing in additional countries to participate in this process, such as France.

But what’s even more important: is to provide maximum military and political assistance to the Iraqi Kurds. There’s no scenario under which it will remain a part of the Iraqi state. And the current Kurdish autonomy in Iraq aims to become an independent Kurdish state, which will also get the Kurdish areas in Southeast Anatolia, Turkey. An independent and strong Kurdistan – is a natural ally of Russia, which will be countering the aggressive policy of Ankara and to a certain degree restrain the excessive ambition of Tehran, which is eager to assume the role of a regional leader, while not taking into account Russia’s interests. And, strange as it may sound, Israel may also become a natural ally of Russia in this matter, whose position towards the neo-Ottoman aspirations of “Sultan” Erdogan, and concerns about the Middle Eastern ambitions of Tehran, which aims at getting nuclear weapons while assisting radical Islamist groups in Lebanon and Palestine in their struggle against Israel, is completely justified.

As for friendly Arab countries, they will understand Russia – they themselves are tired of Turkish imperial aspirations and Iranian claims for leadership in the Middle East. As for the sitting authorities in Baghdad, they have created preconditions for Kurdistan’s independence themselves, at the same time Iraqi Sunnis are more concerned with getting their own autonomy rather than standing in the way of the Kurds. In an extreme case, at this stage, one can raise the question of creating a confederate Iraqi state, since this will completely eliminate the Islamist threat.

Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.  

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