Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq the top loser as Russia strikes

With Baghdad struggling in its war against the Islamic State group, Russia’s military build-up in Syria could push the conflict in Iraq into a more difficult phase, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraq the top loser as Russia strikes
Iraq the top loser as Russia strikes
Al-Ahram Weekly

When news broke last week that Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet US President Barack Obama during the United Nations General Assembly, speculation was high about a breakthrough on Syria, a crisis that has strained the already tense US-Russia relationship.

The expectations came in the wake of signs by Moscow that it was ready to help end the civil war in Syria. In this reading, Putin would underscore in his speech at the United Nations his country’s readiness to use its leverage in Syria to influence the choice of a successor if President Bashar Al-Assad were to leave power after a transition.

Washington welcomed the meeting, despite profound differences with Moscow, probably to give Obama the chance to test whether he could make progress through high-level engagement with his Russian counterpart.

But the overtures turned out to be a propaganda campaign by Russia, similar to its rhetoric on Ukraine, to mask its real intentions: to use its military might to achieve its geopolitical goals, this time by confronting entrenched US interests in the Middle East.

In his speech to the General Assembly, Putin admonished the West for supporting democratic revolutions in the Middle East, which he claimed had created a power vacuum that led to the rise of terrorist groups in the region, including the Islamic State (IS) group.

Putin told the General Assembly that it would be an “enormous mistake” not to cooperate with Al-Assad’s government to combat the extremist group. “No one but President Al-Assad’s armed forces and the Kurdish militia are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organisations in Syria,” he said. “Countries opposed to Al-Assad are simply worsening the situation.”

But Russia’s actions on the ground spoke louder than its words. A few days before Putin flew to New York, Russia dispatched warplanes, helicopters, tanks and naval forces to Syria in a move apparently designed to protect Al-Assad’s government. Some 1,000 Russian marines were also sent to guard the Syrian airfields where the Russian warplanes are based.

Russia also agreed with Iran, Iraq and Syria to establish a joint intelligence centre in Baghdad to coordinate operations against IS militants. The Russian media said the centre would be used to gather, process and analyse intelligence about the situation in the Middle East.

But it was the Russian decision to send its warplanes to strike targets in Syria less than 48 hours after Putin’s meeting with Obama that surprised Washington, which had hoped that Moscow’s initiative would be to help in efforts to oust Al-Assad and end the Syrian quagmire.

To Washington, the air campaign, which Moscow claims is mainly hitting areas controlled by insurgent groups, including IS fighters, is a game-changer intended to reassert Moscow’s place in the key crossroads of the Middle East.

By escalating the global rivalry between Washington and Moscow, Putin seems to be reviving Russia’s role as a major power and creating a dangerous clash of political objectives between the two superpowers in the region.

However, not all the damage Moscow wreaks will be on Syria and its relationship with the United States and other allies seeking Al-Assad’s ouster. The risks and consequences of the Russian adventure will also hit Iraq, which is the other front of the war against the IS terror group.

As Russia moves into Syria the question is what this could mean for Iraq, which is trying to dislodge IS militants from large chunks of territory seized after the group’s surprising advances in the spring of last year.

For Iraq, the chaos created by the new US-Russian confrontation is perplexing. At first glance, the outcome of the Russian involvement in the war on terror might appear to be a positive one for Iraq. The Russian air strikes could be effective in weakening IS and eventually in retaking territory from the terror group.

But a closer look at the Russian operations highlights a different aspect of the conflict. The picture that emerges is not encouraging as the Russian military build-up is clearly meant to help the Al-Assad regime stop further advances by Syrian rebels.

Doubts remain, however, about the ability of the Russian onslaught to impose a military solution in Syria. While the Syrian crisis could linger for years without a political solution, the Russian escalation could force extremist Syrian rebels, including Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front, to join IS and create a larger and more radical Sunni opposition force in Syria.

A merger of Syrian Sunni rebels would be catastrophic for Iraq and would further complicate efforts to retake land captured by IS. It would also undermine efforts to win the trust of Iraqi Sunnis and persuade them to join an overall war against the terror group.

The military involvement could also undermine efforts by the US-led coalition to help Iraq in its war against IS. The Russian air strikes have angered the United States and its Western and Arab allies, who have been bombing IS targets for more than a year.

The alliance has called on Russia to cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and focus on fighting IS. In a joint statement on 2 October, the allies said Russia’s actions constituted a “further escalation” of the conflict and would only fuel more extremism.

The Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported on Saturday that the United States, angered by news of the establishment of a coordination centre with Russia, Iran and Syria, has halted some aspects of its cooperation programme with Iraq in the fight against IS, including providing Iraq with aerial photographs of IS targets.

Pentagon officials said the agreement came as a surprise to military intelligence. Teams are now scrambling to make sure classified intelligence from the US does not make its way into the hands of the Russian, Syrian or Iranian authorities.

The US move to suspend its cooperation in the campaign against IS militants is bad news for Iraq, which is preparing a major campaign to take back the rest of the country’s territory still under IS control.

Moreover, Russian attempts to prop up the Al-Assad regime will aggravate sectarian divides in the region. Syrian Sunni-led opposition groups have dismissed Moscow’s involvement as an attempt to save Al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime from its fate. Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Iraqi Forces Union has criticised Russia for being “unfriendly to [the country’s Iraqi Sunni] provinces.”

Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two regional Sunni powerhouses, have expressed their rage over the Russian military build-up and signalled that they will oppose the intervention. On Sunday, more than 50 top Saudi clerics blasted the Russian involvement as an “alliance” with the Shias and Alawites against the Sunnis and described “all” Syrian opposition fighters as jihadists.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan questioned Russia’s motives in its air strikes in Syria. “Russia has no borders with Syria, but Turkey has a 911-km border. I am disturbed at what is happening now,” he told the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera TV network on Friday.

As a result, Russian support for the Al-Assad regime will be seen as nothing more than another proxy war in the region, and one that is expected to deepen the Shia-Sunni divide that has been feeding civil wars in both Iraq and Syria and threatens to increase the sectarian fissure in the Middle East.

In the ensuing struggle, Iraq will pay the heaviest price. Unfortunately, Iraq is not well equipped to deal with this new crisis on its doorstep. Iran, whose political support and security assistance are critical for the survival of the Shia-led government in Baghdad, is already part of the Russian endeavour to provide a lifeline to the Al-Assad regime.

Baghdad will be torn by its loyalty to Tehran and its need for American assistance. Unlike Israel and Turkey, which have been taking bold initiatives to preserve their interests, or Saudi Arabia, which still has political and economic leverage, Iraqi diplomacy is struggling to safeguard the country’s interests.

In sum, Iraq is the weakest link in the new regional equation. With Al-Abadi’s government seemingly unable to deal with such a complex situation, it is hardly surprising that Iraq may become the biggest loser in this new chapter of the Middle East’s power struggle.

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