Baghdad ponders Russia option

Friday 09/10/2015
Iraqi artist Mohammed Karim Nihaya touches up painting of Russian President Putin

WASHINGTON - When the Islamic State (ISIS) took over the western Iraqi city of Ramadi on May 17th, there was a sense of urgency in Washing­ton and Baghdad to hit back with an offensive. This uplifting momen­tum through the summer began to fade in the fall, as a stalemate settled on the outskirts of Ramadi and the northern ISIS-held city of Mosul.
Priorities in Iraq have shifted and Russian air strikes on Syria have ex­posed the subtle US-Iraqi coopera­tion to defeat the Islamic group.
“We have always been very clear that this is an Iraqi-led operation and that the timetable for any of­fensive will be set by them,” US Defense Department spokeswoman Commander Elissa Smith said in August. “We are focused on getting the Iraqi forces adequately trained and equipped and the plan synchro­nised. Efforts to train and advise Iraqi forces are ongoing at multiple sites across Iraq, with cooperation from our coalition partners.”
The Obama administration scrambled in May 2014 to acceler­ate the pace of weapons transfer and training of Iraqi tribes to set the stage for an Iraqi-led offensive to re­capture Ramadi, a 90-minute drive from Baghdad. Mosul has been sys­tematically isolated by Iraqi forces and ISIS is showing signs of vulner­ability there.
According to the Pentagon, the slow, methodical approach of the Iraqi forces’ advance aims to limit property destruction and civilian casualties. However, other than Kurdish groups’ success against ISIS around Kirkuk, there has been a stalemate on the battlefield. Ana­lysts are divided as to why.
James Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, said the United States “will have to employ far more air power far more effectively with looser rules of engagement and at least a few thousand US troops on the ground to do air spotting, advis­ing, raiding and, frankly, some US combat contingents to stiffen [the Iraqis’] spine to get an offensive go­ing”.
“Priority should be retake Ramadi and isolate Falluja,” he added.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, had an­other take and noted that the limits of the Iraqi troops are “a great con­cern because there is only so much that air power can do in this kind of campaign”.
“There is also the fact that half the army melted away in recent years due to politics and nepotism and also the fact that ISIS is fairly formidable,” he said.
Compared to one year ago, mobi­lisation calls by Iraqi leaders have succeeded in shielding Shia areas from a potential ISIS offensive. This sense of security allowed protesters in Baghdad to shift the focus in Iraq on July 31st by taking to the streets to demand better public services, which emboldened Prime Minis­ter Haider al-Abadi to announce an ambitious reform package. On­going political pressure on Abadi cast doubts on his ability to follow through.
Jeffrey said Abadi can still im­plement reforms and maintain the unity of the country if the Shia coa­lition “listens to him”, referring to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the protesters who called for reforms, “not the allies of Iran”. But “the jury is still out” on whether Abadi will manage to succeed on the political front or at least “clear away some of the underbrush and excessive gov­ernment [corruption] at mid-level positions”, O’Hanlon said.
A new dimension to the Iraqi scene is the Russian air strikes on neighbouring Syria, which prompt­ed calls by Iraqi leaders, in particu­lar Sistani and Abadi, for Moscow to expand its target list to include ISIS in Iraq.
A senior US administration offi­cial downplayed any strategic im­plications of an alliance between Moscow and Baghdad, stating that the Russians “have little to give the Iraqis since they have few assets in Iraq”.
Smith noted that Russia “has an­nounced publicly that its air opera­tions in Syria will not be extended to Iraq”.
“We have consistently said that we welcome a Russian role in fight­ing ISIS. However, we are concerned by reports that Russian strikes in Syria targeted moderate opposi­tion groups, rather than ISIS and we have made those concerns clear to the Russians,” she said.
However, Jeffrey pointed out that any Russian action in Iraq “would be totally objectionable to any US administration interested in pre­serving stability and the US security role in the region”.
“Tragically there is real doubt whether President [Barack] Obama sees things that way. He has sur­prised us frequently since the 2013 Syria’s red line disaster with posi­tions that seemingly fly in the face of US interests,” he added.
O’Hanlon said that if Russian air strikes are “de-conflicted” from US air strikes in Iraq and are “truly in service” of the Iraqi government’s offensive plan, “they would be among the least of our problems”.