Advice to Iraq: Don’t Fall for Russia

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi announced a sweeping reform package this past August in a politically ambitious gambit aimed at removing excess in the Iraqi government and cracking down on rampant corruption. His push to implement reforms follows widespread protests throughout Iraq over frequent energy shortages and deep-rooted political corruption and mismanagement, and comes at a time when Baghdad should do more to improve the destabilized Iraqi political environment that ISIS exploits. These reform initiatives include cutting spending and consolidating ministries, restructuring the sectarian quota appointment system, and removing the Vice President and Deputy Prime Minister posts. These reforms received a symbolic endorsement from Iraq’s top Shi’ite figure, Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, who urged Abadi to address the legitimate grievances of the population. Many obstacles need to be overcome, including the persistent efforts by Iranian-sponsored militia leaders and influential politicians in Iraq’s parliament to spoil progress, a lack of Iraqi-led advances against ISIL, a struggling economy, and most recently, Russia’s entrance into Middle Eastern crises. However, it is essential that Abadi resists Russia’s influence as he moves forward, as failing to do so might erase his hopes at reform.

Russia’s intervention has focused largely on Syria, where in addition to supporting regime forces against the Syrian opposition, Moscow has ramped up its military presence at its airbase in Latakia province. Russian warplanes have provided continuous air support to a renewed Syrian-Iranian offensive in northwestern Syria, and struck rebel targets in Damascus, Idlib, Latakia, and Aleppo provinces. According to activist and local sources, Russian airstrikes hit civilian targets and Western backed rebels. In addition, high-confidence reporting from the Institute for the Study of War’s Syria Project indicates that Russia also launched airstrikes against ISIS positions following an offensive against the regime near Homs.

In Iraq, Russia has formed a joint intelligence center in Baghdad’s “Green Zone” to share intelligence with Syria and Iraq. It is reported in the press that some Iraqi airstrikes have already been carried out using intelligence shared from this operations center. Additionally, Russian cruise missiles originating in the Caspian Sea soared over the skies of Iraq on the way to targets in Syria. While Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi may be interested in garnering maximum support against ISIL, Russia is not the answer.

First, Russia’s presence may prove to be counterproductive. Increased Russian involvement in Iraq could lead to greater influence for Iranian proxies, Shia militias, and a ruling coalition of Shia politicians who strongly oppose Abadi’s reform package. Russia might find an environment conducive to its intervention in Iraq, with the presence of ground partners who would gladly fight under Russia’s cover. Similar to Syria, a Russian-supported offensive may involve these Iranian and Shia militia ground forces.

Moreover, Moscow’s presence could bring about greater cooperation between Tehran and Moscow at the expense of US-Iraqi cooperation. In fact, in his first trip to Iraq as the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US General Joseph Dunford advised Abadi and Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi that, “it would make it very difficult for us to be able to provide the kind of support you need if the Russians were here conducting operations as well providing air support.” Russia’s presence exacerbates the complex situation Abadi currently faces. He is caught in a delicate balancing act as he attempts to gain independence from divisive Iranian proxy militias while simultaneously maintaining US support for Iraqi-led operations and training. With Russian support, the Western-Shia-Iranian balance is at risk of tipping away from the West, whose efforts may be hampered by Russia, potentially leading to a more volatile political environment where opposition to reforms grows stronger and militias become the main fighting force against ISIS. Also, succumbing to powerful Shia militias and political figures who call for Russian airstrikes would alienate Sunni tribal fighters who would likely not tolerate Abadi’s collaboration with Moscow and Tehran. Furthermore, Iranian backed groups and politicians have already denounced Abadi’s National Guard Law that aims to incorporate Sunni tribal fighters in the fight against the Islamic State, as well as his proposed salary cuts to federal employees. Abadi was dealt the largest blow to his reform package on November 2 of last year when the ruling State of Law coalition in parliament blocked his ability to pass reforms unilaterally, requiring wider consultation. Russia may embolden Iranian and Shia elements of Iraq’s government who it would potentially coordinate with and hinder the development of a more inclusive political environment.

Abadi faces fierce opposition, especially from influential Shi’ite politicians, such as former Prime Minster Nuri Al-Maliki and his allies in the Council of Representatives (CoR), who constantly seek to undermine Abadi’s legitimacy. Iranian backed Iraqi Shia militias have denounced protestors’ demands, publically condemned reforms, and the leaders of the most powerful militas – Kata'ib Hezbollah, Badr Organization, and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq – are searching for avenues to block reforms through constitutional challenges and building opposition in parliament. In addition, the Institute for the Study of War also judges that these proxy groups are “likely to increase kinetic activities in Baghdad to pressure or coerce Prime Minister Abadi to limit further reforms.” Russian influence might exacerbate the complex situation in Iraq and strengthen the voices of these powerful Shiite militias who wish to disrupt political reform and generate more leverage over Abadi.

While it may be tempting to gain additional short-term assistance against ISIL, Russia’s influence may only compound Iraq’s troubles. It could perpetuate Tehran’s major role in Iraqi politics and security, hamper efforts to form a more inclusive government, enable Shia militias posing a serious threat to Abadi’s reform package, and weaken Sunni trust in the central government. Abadi should remain resolute, appease popular demands, work cooperatively with his Shia political bloc in Iraq’s parliament, and Iraq’s current allies in the fight against ISIL. Iraq cannot fall into Russia’s trap, or political reform is doomed to fail and Abadi’s future role could grow increasingly tenuous.

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