Russia's new alliance in Iraq?

On Saturday, the Russian, Iranian, and Syrian Deputy Chiefs of Staff—the number two military officers in each of their respective countries—met in Baghdad, along with their Iraqi counterpart.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - On Saturday, the Russian, Iranian, and Syrian Deputy Chiefs of Staff—the number two military officers in each of their respective countries—met in Baghdad, along with their Iraqi counterpart.

The Iraqi Defense Ministry issued only a brief statement about the meeting, saying that its purpose was to strengthen cooperation and coordination in terms of security and intelligence” among the four countries.

Notably, the US was not present at the meeting, and it is unclear how the activities of those four countries relate to the activities of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS.)

Formal military cooperation among Iraq, Russia, Syria, and Iran begin in the fall of 2015, just days before the start of Russia’s military intervention in Syria.

On September 28, 2015, Moscow announced that the four countries had “agreed to establish a joint information center in Baghdad to coordinate their operations” against IS.

That same day, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the opening session of the UN General Assembly.

Putin’s speech was notable for at least two reasons. It was the first time in a decade that the Russian President attended the General Assembly’s opening, and his talk was unusually frank.

Citing the Soviet experience, while marking a sharp break with Russia’s Communist past, Putin denounced the entire notion of “social experiments for export,” which, he said, had “led to tragic consequences.”

Putin went on to criticize the US for something similar. Speaking of the Middle East, he stated, “Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty, and social disaster.”

I cannot help asking those who have forced that situation,” Putin continued, “Do you realize what you have done?”

What was Putin’s conclusion? Given all the chaos in the region, there was no choice except to work with Damascus to defeat terrorism.

Over the previous two months, the US had been picking up intelligence suggesting that Russia was building up forces in Syria and repeatedly warned Moscow against a military intervention in support of Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered regime.

Yet two days after Putin’s speech, Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria began in earnest.

As Ely Karmon, an Israeli political scientist, noted, “US President Barack Obama appeared to be caught off guard by the bold Russian move.”

Moscow claimed to be attacking IS targets in Syria, but American officials repeatedly protested that Russia was bombing moderate rebels. The US protests, like the warnings that preceded them, had little effect.

It was in this context that the quadrilateral military center—Russia, Iran, Syria, and Iraq—was established in Baghdad.

Following the meeting on Saturday, Iran’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Brig. Gen. Qadir Nezami, told reporters that the four countries had agreed to hold a meeting of their Chiefs of Staff in the near future, although he provided no specific date or venue.

The US and its European allies once dominated the diplomacy regarding Syria’s political future. Conducted under UN auspices, it was known as the “Geneva process.”

However, starting in early 2017, Moscow established a parallel diplomatic track on Syria, involving Iran and Turkey. The talks among the small group were held in the capital of Kazakhstan and came to be known as the “Astana process.” 

With time, and along with the regime’s ever-increasing success in re-establishing control over the country’s territory, the Astana talks have gained sufficient legitimacy to threaten the viability of the Geneva talks.

Russia has established a Baghdad-based military alliance among a small group of countries, parallel to the much-larger US-led coalition. Does Moscow envisage that alliance ever displacing the US and its coalition?

That may seem far-fetched, but much could depend on the next Iraqi government, whose composition, as of this writing, remains undecided.

The US and Iran are involved in a fierce tug-of-war, with the US backing the faction led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Iran backing that led by Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization, whose list is dominated by the commanders of the Iranian-backed militias.

On Sunday night, Abadi announced that he had the seats to form the next government, only to have Amiri’s faction announce shortly thereafter that it had the seats to do so.

The situation is, thus, unclear. However, if Amiri should prevail, his government could well ask the US-led coalition to leave Iraq and rely, instead, on the Russian-led alliance.

Were that to happen, as a former Pentagon official suggested to Kurdistan 24, the US would surely regret its decision to oppose last year’s independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region.

Editing by Nadia Riva