While the Iraqi state continues looking to the U.S., Iran, and the Syrian regime as allies in the struggle against the Islamic State, Baghdad must carefully navigate the delicate regional order that may well shift as a result of the U.S. withdrawal of forces from northern Syria. Russia is poised to serve as an increasingly important partner of Iraq in the struggle against violent extremism.
Iraq has much to lose from a withdrawal of U.S. troops from neighboring Syria.
From a security standpoint, Iraq has much to lose from a withdrawal of U.S. troops from neighboring Syria. It was only last December when Iraq’s then-Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared his country to be victorious over the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS). To be sure, critical cities in Iraq have been liberated, yet significant extremist violence remains a reality, particularly in Iraq’s peripheral areas. The continued weakness of state institutions in Iraq provide ISIS and other violent Sunni extremists with the means to further threaten the country’s future via a sustained insurgency from sleeper cells throughout Iraq. Naturally, in face of this sustained terror threat, Iraqi officials are deeply concerned about the future of Syria in wake of recent developments that may drastically shift the region’s geopolitical order and security landscape.
Fears of a Power Vacuum in Northern Syria
To brace for the potentially chaotic fallout and to prevent increased ISIS activity, Baghdad has sought greater cooperation with Damascus and increased involvement of Iraqi troops in Syria’s ongoing conflict. Iraq and Syria’s current military partnership includes air strikes and Iranian-supported Iraqi Shi’a militia operations against ISIS in Syrian territory. The Popular Mobilization Forces, a group of Iraqi Shi’a forces that support Bashar al-Assad’s regime, has also tied Damascus and Baghdad militarily in the face of the ISIS menace.
Although even if U.S. forces remain in northern Syria, the future of Syria’s political order and security architecture will still be shaped by Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Nonetheless, reducing America’s military footprint in Syria will only further embolden Tehran, Ankara, and Moscow in their plans for establishing themselves as the main shareholders in post-conflict Syria. Doubtless, Iraq will have to accept this reality and likely enhance its coordination with these three capitals in order to address Baghdad’s security concerns vis-à-vis Syria, particularly the Deir ez-Zor area near the Iraqi border.
Iraq Looks North to Russia
Iraq’s new government is likely to continue looking to Russia as a stabilizing force in the Middle East and a long-term partner for Baghdad to work with as terrorist groups continue posing grave threats to Iraq’s future.
At the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, Moscow delivered 20 military choppers to Iraq’s army, as well as four dozen anti-armor attack helicopters. This Russian move, made when the U.S. was consumed internally by an unprecedented presidential race, escaped Washington’s attention. Meanwhile, Iraqi military officials welcomed this support from Moscow after observing the Russians’ success in combatting ISIS in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. The Iraqi Army has also received training in Russia, and Baghdad has signaled its interest in purchasing Russia’s S-400 missile system. Iraq would join Turkey and India as Russian air defense recipients.
The future of Russia’s relationship with Iraq goes beyond a mere willingness by Moscow to sell arms to Baghdad.
The future of Russia’s relationship with Iraq goes beyond a mere willingness by Moscow to sell arms to Baghdad. Soft power matters too. President Vladimir Putin enjoys much popularity among Iraq’s various ethno-sectarian groups, which will bode well for the future of Baghdad-Moscow relations. Iraqi Shi’a are grateful for the support that Moscow lent the Iran- and Iraq-allied regime in Damascus throughout the Syrian crisis. They have regarded Russia as a “natural ally” in the struggle against Salafist-jihadist terrorism ever since Moscow intensified its direct military intervention against Assad’s enemies in September 2015.
Doubtless, Russia’s perspective on Iranian-sponsored Shi’a militias in the Middle East as not being terrorist organizations—as well as Russia’s outright and direct support for them in the battles against ISIS—will serve to further enhance Moscow’s growing ties with the Iraqi state and its allies. Reportedly, in certain Shi’a neighborhoods of Baghdad, many call Putin “Abu Ali Putin.”
Russia also has strong ties with Iraq’s Kurdish minority, particularly the Barzani family, rooted in a history of Iraqi Kurds living in Moscow in exile. Moscow’s relationship with the Kurds is tied to their status as an ethnic minority, used as a tool in the Levant’s complicated landscape that includes the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) military receiving military support. Energy is a primary concern and is another link between Russia and Kurdistan that is now growing faster led by Rosneft Oil Company. For Iraq’s anti-American, Sunni citizens, Russia is respected in no small part due to Moscow’s opposition to the 2003 U.S./U.K. invasion and the Kremlin’s keenness to foster strong relations with Arab states previously colonized by Western imperial powers.
Iraq and Russia’s deepening partnership against the backdrop of a growing threat of a resurgent ISIS role in the volatile Levant must be analyzed within the context of the present U.S. administration’s unpredictable and incoherent foreign Middle East policy. As Trump appears to be an unhinged president in the eyes of Iraq’s leadership, Putin comes across as a more reliable source of insurance.
President Trump’s cursory first visit to American troops in Iraq on December 26 has drawn a similar vein of criticism to his change in Syrian policy. Trump’s sudden appearance was viewed by many Iraqis as an infringement upon Iraqi sovereignty and has led to calls for a total withdrawal of American troops in Iraq—a rather awkward demand that comes on the heels of the opening of two new U.S. Army bases in Anbar province that are intended to help Iraqi forces secure their border with Syria against ISIS infiltration. Nonetheless, as questions linger about Washington’s plans for Syria as well as the U.S.’s long-term vision for its role in the greater region, Iraqi politicians are naturally hedging bets and looking elsewhere for stronger security partnerships.
Working with the “Great Russia”
The growth of Russia’s warm ties with Iraq are demonstrative of Moscow’s ability to achieve major objectives in the Middle East at the expense of Washington’s means to accomplish its goals.
The growth of Russia’s warm ties with Iraq are demonstrative of Moscow’s ability to achieve major objectives in the Middle East at the expense of Washington’s means to accomplish its goals. Considering the billions of dollars that American taxpayers have invested in post-2003 Iraq compared to the minimal amount of money that Russia has spent on the country, it is remarkable that the Kremlin poses such a threat to American influence in Baghdad.
Put simply, whereas the U.S.—under both Obama and Trump—have failed to implement any long-term or coherent plans for ending the conflict in Syria, Russia’s involvement in the conflict sent a strong message to all Arab regimes that Moscow can serve as a loyal ally in the face of existential threats so long as such regional states cooperate with the Kremlin.
As long as Iraq remains under threat of ISIS and other violent extremists, Baghdad will continue looking to Russia as an increasingly strong and well-defined pillar of the Middle East’s security landscape. In 2019, the historic Cold War alliance that Baghdad and Moscow enjoyed from 1958 to 1991 may well come back in a new form as Russia continues making its return to the Middle East felt in virtually all Arab capitals.