After Afghanistan, the Republic of Iraq became the second country in the Greater Middle East to suffer a US military invasion in recent years. Many years have since past, yet war rages on in this country, between the new government and various ethnic and extremist groups, and it has become a staging ground for American military operations in neighboring Syria. Apart from Syria, Iraq borders with Turkey and Iran, and the United States currently has rather tense relations with these countries, especially Turkey. The presence of a US military base on Iraqi territory is an important argument that Washington uses in negotiations with these countries. Iraq is strategically important for the United States in its plans to maintain and intensify the influence it has in the Middle East. Lately, however, this state has begun making fervent efforts to break free from American control.
After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, a new government was formed in the country. Unsurprisingly, this government formed under American occupation is largely comprised of individuals who have been loyal to the United States, or who at least consider America a key partner for their country. In 2011, an official flag ceremony took place to mark the beginning of the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. However, the United States still has a military presence in the country to this day at a number of military bases used for conducting operations in the region. These operations have included fighting against groups of fighters from the illegal DAESH (Arabic-language acronym for ISIL) terrorist group, as well as shadier campaigns, such as supporting the Syria’s “moderate opposition” or the recent murder of Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani.
The American presence is a cause of discontent among incumbent Iraqi government officials and anti-government militia groups alike, as well as many ordinary Iraqi citizens. Different kinds of anti-American campaigns take place on a regular basis in Baghdad.
After 2011, the Iraqi government were given the opportunity to work more independently. Even though the United States remains an important partner for Iraq, including in the areas of defense and defense technology, Iraq has started developing relations with other potential partners. After 2011, a shift in Iraqi politics was already noticeable, as policymakers began looking towards Russia. For instance, Iraq equipped its army with American weapons since the beginning of the US occupation in 2003, but in 2012, Iraq signed an arms supply agreement with Russia for Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems and a batch of Russian attack helicopters. The arms deal was worth a total of 4.2 billion USD.
Since 2015, Russia has played an active role in reconciliation efforts to end the armed conflict in Iraq and in the fight against terrorism. Since then, Russia’s influence in the Middle East has grown much stronger.
Over all these years, Russia has been cooperating more closely with Iraq. Russia’s interests differ markedly from America’s objectives. The Americans need to maintain a military presence in Iraq to be able to put pressure on Iran, Syria and Turkey, whereas Russia maintains allied relations with these countries.
On more than one occasion, Russia has called on the United States to end its military presence in Iraq in accordance with international rules and not to use the country to serve its own geopolitical interests, which is not part of the framework of ensuring regional security.
In January 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim in Moscow. Once again, Mr. Lavrov expressed his hope that the activities of American troops in Iraq would reflect and aim to achieve the same goals stated in Washington — to fight terrorism and bring stability to the country — and that they would not pursue some other one-sided United States interests. Mr. Mohamed Ali Alhakim, in turn, expressed his gratitude towards Russian President Vladimir Putin for the role Russia has played in the fight against terrorism.
In January 2020, the Iraqi parliament voted in favor of expelling American troops from their country and in favor of discontinuing Iraqi cooperation with the US-led international coalition fighting terrorism. This decision was significantly influenced by the assassination of Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2020, which Iran responded to in its missile attack on the American military base on Iraqi territory. Iraq has interpreted all of this as a serious threat to its security.
In the same month, the media reported that Iraq had decided to purchase a batch of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia. This news is a sign that Iraq is resolved and on course to building closer ties with Russia at the expense of its relations with the United States. The Russian S-400 SAM missile system has gained quite a reputation over the last few years. The United States has threatened to impose sanctions on all the governments that have decided to purchase them (India, China, Egypt and Turkey), but they are buying them anyway. Thus, the S-400 not only serves its main purpose of ensuring air and missile defense, it can also serve as a unique kind of barometer, indicating the direction in which a government’s foreign policy is orientated: countries purchasing the S-400 are sending out a clear signal that they are ready to strengthen relations with Russia and prepared to distance themselves from the United States.
America’s position in Iraq has been severely shaken over this recent period. The Pentagon is insisting that American troops are not pulling out of Iraq, and US President Donald Trump has said that he will be demanding financial compensation from Iraq if troops are expelled. However, the voting has already taken place, and the American troops will probably have to leave.
Iraq had served as an outpost for the US, allowing America to exert its influence throughout the whole Middle East, which it could now be about to lose. Regional analysts give various different predictions of the consequences that could follow a complete US military withdrawal from Iraq. Many fear that once the majority of US military forces have been withdrawn, we could see a repeat of the situation in 2011, when Iraq was plunged into a civil war which is still being fought to this day, and when much of the country’s territory was seized by the illegal DAESH terrorist group. DAESH is now considered to have been practically defeated, although even without DAESH, there are still many other ambitious terrorist groups in Iraq, which could become significantly more active after the Americans have pulled out.
In these circumstances, there seems to be more and more truth to be heard in the opinions being voiced about how the responsibility of monitoring the situation in Iraq may fall on Russia, a country which has become a significant military force and political actor in the Middle East in recent years.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.