The pressure from Washington on Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi not to invite the Russians to participate in fighting ISIL may not hold for a long time. CENTCOM confirmed that Abadi did not issue an invitation to the Russians. This is indeed the case. But is it really Abadi who decides in Baghdad? And if he is, which is questionable at best, what are the dynamics that shape his ultimate decisions?
Just before going through some important developments in Baghdad happening now, we may take a peek at the end of the worst case scenario in order to know precisely what is at stake here. In other words, what if Abadi invites the Russians anyway?
If the Russians go to Iraq while they are already in Syria, this will enable the rising alliance between Russia and Iran to control an area stretching from central Asia to the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Turkey will be under pressure from the east and the south simultaneously. The strategic impact on energy routs may alter the global energy map. US presence south and north of this considerable block will be greatly reduced as individual countries will be reluctant to challenge the new axis. To sum up: the rise of this axis on that vast stretch of the globe would have changed once and for all the global strategic configuration. If China is to join, this could turn to be the utter definition of a new global game changer.
Maybe those who see “prudence” in the current under-action of the Obama administration or over-action of the Bush administration would be willing at that point to review their assessments. The bad news is that it will be too late then. The good news is that any brain-storming now, when we are not there yet, will bring a better visibility to the next administration. Hopefully, something will be done then.
The truth is that we are in the midst of this strategic shift which is still in the making, and still with no certain outcome. The worst case scenario will not be avoided by political pressure on Abadi or personal veiled and polite warnings delivered by General Dunford. These kinds of reaction merit their name-they are simply reactions. If this shift unfolds, the US would be in real trouble in the whole of West Asia.
It is true that the US capacity to protect its foreign policy in that vital region was over stretched during the previous administration, then unresponsive in the seven years which followed. Yet, history tells us that in moments like that, some small steps could have limited the damage and redirected the events if done in the proper moment. But to define these moments and steps, there needs to be a highly sensitive collective mind. This is available in Washington as shown by all relevant government agencies recommending earlier steps in Syria in 2012 and 2013 to be vetoed by the President almost alone.
Russia moved to Syria after few weeks of signing the nuclear deal with Iran. Whatever has been preplanned between the Russians and the Iranians during the nuclear negotiations resulted in a chain of coordinated moves following the conclusion of the talks. We do not know of course what the two countries planned and how they prepared to use the nuclear deal to create a favorable strategic context for their objectives. But we saw their plans materializing on the ground-Russian forces in Syria and official intelligence presence in Iraq. And the more we reflect about these actual steps, the clearer the general objectives become. And as we detect from what is going on currently in Iraq, the Russians will almost certainly go to Iraq as well at some point in the near future. Iraq is ripe and could fall in the basket of President Putin at any time.
Baghdad is filled with strong winds going in the direction of Moscow. On October 11, an Iraqi Parliamentarian said bluntly that Abadi should invite the Russians to Iraq without delay. “American betrayed us over the past 12 years. The political forces today must assume national and historical responsibility as we must invest in this historic opportunity for the Iraqi people in letting Russia direct strikes against ISIL”, the Parliamentarian said. That was just the beginning.
Since then, there is a huge storm of statements, media shows, articles and speeches given by politicians calling for a Russian role. It is not likely that this campaign is spontaneous. Two things should be noticed: All those who want the Russians in are pro-Iran Shia politicians and commentators, and the public invitations to the Russians are usually coupled with harsh criticism to the US.
Obviously, Abadi is still resisting this huge wave of calls to bring the Russians in. His resistance is not insignificant. What the PM is trying to do to offset the new pro-Russia politicians has a chance to work. He is simply working on isolating the Qassem Suleimani – Nouri Al Maliki axis which seems to be behind this pro-Russia wave. And he is doing that through charting a political bypass.
The plan of Abadi is as follows: working to build a coalition with Amar Al Hakim, Muqtada Al Sadr, the Kurds and the Sunnis to gain a majority in the Parliament (possibly 200 seats of 328) and hence to isolate Iran’s spear head in Baghdad Nouri Al Maliki and his allies. The plan is progressing fine, particularly after Abadi’s visit to Najaf in November 7. Sistani did not meet Abadi during the visit to preserve his space as a religious leader. He did not meet Maliki neither.
Yet, to consider that Abadi’s game is enough to isolate those who want the Russians in and to focus only on the PM progress is a mistake. It is a mistake because it attaches this important issue only to the person of Abadi while the base of supporting an inviting the Russians is growing very rapidly around him-that is to say that it is wrong to see Abadi without seeing the general environment around him. This environment is what will enable the PM to succeed or will cause him to fail. And this environment point more to failure.
It is a mistake also because it does not include a potential role of a surprising event that may happen in the public theatre. Take for example a failed attack on Ramadi or a major attack and massacre by ISIL on an Iraqi security base. The “blame the Americans” card would be sold widely to a frightened Shia public which will bring about a certain failure for Abadi’s game and possibly his political end and will certainly bring the Russians to Baghdad.
Iran has many assets in Iraq. Suleimani can manipulate events to get things to a point where the laborious work of Abadi could suddenly look misplaced and end up rejected. After all, Ramadi was almost given to ISIL in a complex political manuever. A massacre where many Shia members of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Anbar or anywhere else, for example, could flare sentiments to the extent of forcing Abadi to get along with Maliki and with Putin’s enabler Mr. Qassem Suleimani or leave the PM with no other choice but to resign.
But how to prevent any attempt to shake Abadi or abort his plan? With fewer assets in Iraq than Iran’s, the US has to escalate in Syria in order to improve its leverage in Iraq.
While the two war fields seem politically separate, the truth is that they are not, from Putin’s perspective, separate at all. Russia looks at Iraq and Syria as a strategically crucial whole to reach the Mediterranean, hence turning the Turkish bridge obsolete. Iran has the same interest but with nuanced differences. It is in Syria that the relative strategic importance of Iraq will be defined.
But why should not we welcome the Russian role as some administration officials do? After all anti-Russian sentiments are no more part of the West’s DNA in the post-cold world.
The problem here has many dimensions. Russia mounted the Iranian horse to invade the Near East. This horse is indeed a wild, sectarian, expansionist and dangerous. It was not the ideal horse for Mr. Putin to ride, but it was the only one available in the real world. Russia, and potentially China, once able to break the US presence in West Asia, will almost certainly have a free ride in the rest of Asia at minimum particularly that other countries will change their bets and place them on the new emerging powers. This in general will usher in a new phase in the global game of nations.
But will China fully join the new emerging alliance between Russia and Iran? The emergence of an alliances is wrongly understood as a product of strategists and leaders gathering in closed rooms and forming a specific qualitatively different relation. But this is merely a culmination of a process. A new alliance emerges in the consciousness of leaders and strategists when its objective necessity is more or less laid down in reality in a distinguishable manner. Once the advantages are clear to the Chinese, it will be illogical for them not to join in actively.
It is amazing to watch the inter-play between the regional players and the global ones. The game is not defined by one single side in isolation of the others. It was the Iranians who invited the Russians in. The invitation is part of a larger game to reduce the US influence, an objective shared by both Iran and Russia each for its own reasons.
The wave confronting the US now in West Asia is huge indeed. And the US has weakened its position in the last 15 years to the point that its presence there may be jeopardized. In this storm, a new world is being born. And it is not a pretty one.
This is a moment when resources and assets should be preserved carefully. There are many things the US does not like in the Arab World as there are many things that the Arabs do not like in the US regional policies. But this is no time for ideology or optics and politics. It is a moment for brain storming and reaching a collective strategy to reduce the momentum of the huge wave coming from the East to flood the Near East and change the global strategic balance. And the debate should be active enough to reach clear options before the change of guards right here in Washington.
The Arabs have to understand however that the role of the international public opinion in the overall picture is genuine. It is an important ally. If it is alienated by images of bearded cross-eyed fanatics slaughtering human beings, that certainly would not help. A group fighting on the ground has to have a national and political identity and not an extremist one.
Abadi is not guaranteed to win without substantial pressure on Iran and Russia in Syria and elsewhere, and without US forces in Iraq being extremely careful to avoid a trap that may promote the “blame the Americans” or “ISIL is fabricated by the Americans” mottos that have a distinctive political goal.
A totally new assessment of Iraq and Syria is needed. It should look at both as one, not in operational terms, but in strategic terms. One last thing: underestimating the dynamics on the grounds or inside the regional players is a big mistake because at the end of the day it is working with those guys that will realize any new plan.
For example. Rushing to capture Raqqa is understandable but fatally wrong. It is true that this will be an enormous psychological and operational blow to ISIL. But how? Using the Kurds to do that is a big mistake. Believing that the value of the goal can justify the negative consequences of the means is wrong in this specific context. It is not the Kurds war. It is the Sunnis war. And a small element of Sunnis in the force prepared to attack Raqqa is not enough to convince the indigenous Sunni population.
The rush of the Obama administration to add capturing the capital of ISIL to its “great foreign policy accomplishments” should be restrained by military strategists who really understand the complexity of the fight. Politics should be kept far from decisions of that nature. Pushing the Kurds deep into Sunni land will plant the seeds for future problems between the Arabs and Kurds and will help extremism re-emerge. The Kurds should be given their full rights, denied for long decades unjustly, but their role should remain secondary in fighting for Raqqa while provided with means to defend their own areas. The golden rule is that Sunnis should liberate Sunni land if any victory is to be long term.
Middle East Briefing