Could Russia move to counterbalance the US in Iraq?
DUBAI - 2020 began dramatically in the Middle East, as a US drone strike killed Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s al-Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of closely aligned Al-Hashed al-Shaabi.
As Washington demonstrated its growing intent to resolve its challenges with Iran, Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution calling for foreign troops to leave the country — a significant move directed at the US military.
At the same time, reports surfaced that Russia was intensifying efforts to sell the S-300 or S-400 air defence system to Iraq. The S-300 and S-400 are highly capable systems that can destroy aircraft, drones and missiles at altitudes of 30km.
Acquiring the technology would offer Iraq protection from missile and rocket attacks and effectively remove freedom of action for any aircraft in its airspace without consent. The S-400 would mean missions, such as the drone strike that killed Soleimani, would become extremely difficult to coordinate and execute.
Moscow is on standby to take any opportunity in the unfolding scenario to consolidate its growing regional clout and importance. Its S-series air defence systems, although designed as a defensive weapon, could prove to be its secret weapon to make inroads into what are supposed to be American spheres of influence.
The United States previously acted to ensure Iraq did not purchase the S-300, although the Iraqi armed forces operate Russia-made Mi-35 and Mi-28NA attack helicopters, Su-25 aircraft and T-90 tanks.
The invasion of Iraq and subsequent military missions have cost hundreds of billions of dollars, a bill largely footed by the United States. Since 2017, the latest year for which information is available, Iraq received $3.7 billion in economic and military assistance from the United States.
With more than $90 billion in earnings from oil exports last year, Iraq is no Afghanistan and could survive without American financial assistance. US political support for Iraq more broadly is a different matter and the United States has said it could sanction Iraq if relations between the two sides soured and Baghdad evicted the US military from the country.
In 2018, Iraq-US trade stood at $13.2 billion, almost $12 billion of which was accounted for by Iraqi crude oil exports. The US State Department reportedly threatened to shut down the Iraqi government’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which would have serious economic ramifications for the country’s finances. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act provides one of a number of options the White House has at its disposal to penalise Iraq for any major purchases of Russian military hardware.
The Iraqi parliament’s request for the withdrawal of US troops has not been taken seriously by the Trump administration. Many in the United States and Iraq questioned the legal standing of a parliamentary resolution and whether it was sufficient to override a strategic bilateral treaty between the two countries. Others questioned the mandate of an outgoing prime minister and government rocked by widespread protests to make such decisions.
The United States remains the single most important partner for Iraq but its large Shia population and long border with Iran create a complex political scenario for Iraq in the context of the Iran-US rivalry. Exhausted by years of war and civil strife since the US-led invasion in 2003 to topple the Saddam Hussein regime, another major conflict for Iraq could well mean its end as we know it considering its long-standing sectarian fault lines and Iraqi Kurdistan’s apparent desire for statehood.
It is in that context that a new wave of Iraqi nationalism emerged that seeks to make Baghdad more independent from foreign influence and agendas, allowing it to chart its destiny and future by itself. It is a growing Iraqi sentiment that would appear to support deeper engagement with Moscow.
Russia has demonstrated a growing intent to position itself in the Middle East. Its military intervention in Syria and work in Iraq are two examples.
Iraq-Russia trade has grown rapidly to nearly $2 billion and Russian investments in Iraq total more than $10 billion, mainly in oil and gas, with major Russian players such as Lukoil, Gazprom Neft, Soyuzneftegaz and Rosneft all expanding their footprints.
Russia has signed agreements to expand ties with Iraq in electricity generation, agriculture and transportation and, last year, inaugurated a command centre in Baghdad under an intelligence-sharing agreement that includes Iran and Syria.
Washington appears to be regaining strategic momentum vis-a-vis Iran, whereas the latter appears increasingly isolated against a multipronged strategy designed to return it to the negotiation table.
Fortunately, international efforts to avoid an Iran-US military conflict have proven successful but Baghdad appears to have little appetite to be a battleground for Iranian-US rivalries. The threat of an Iran-US military conflict will continue to loom as long as the stakes are so high and trust levels so low — creating new political opportunities for Russia.
American unilateralism in the Middle East context has its drawbacks because so many issues are interlinked. Ultimately, Iraq may choose against expelling US troops if that would mean an end to bilateral security cooperation and imposition of economic sanctions but could well be expected to strengthen engagement with Moscow at the same time.
When the S-300 or S-400 becomes a feature of that engagement is a development that will be closely watched.