‘Haji’ Putin’s the talk of Iraq but Abadi keeps US ties
LONDON - It is barely a month since Russia’s upper house of parliament unanimously granted President Vladimir Putin permission to deploy air power in Syria against forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) at the request of the Bashar Assad regime.
A specific objective was to prevent the spread of ISIS-inspired fundamentalism to Russia and its former Soviet neighbours, now the southern rim of the Russian Federation where Islamic forces are once again battling Moscow, reviving the Chechen wars of the 1990s.
Thousands of Russian Muslims have joined ISIS, known also by the Arabic acronym Daesh, and some have returned home, according to Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin chief of staff.
“It does not take a clairvoyant to realise that such people will keep on coming back to Russia,” he said on September 30th. “Thus, we should pre-empt them and act while they are far away, rather than put off dealing with the problem for later, after they have got back to Russia.”
There was no mention of Iraq, however, where presumably the extensive ISIS caliphate presents an equal threat to Russia. There, it is the United States and an international coalition backed by more than 60 countries that are carrying out air strikes against the jihadists, albeit with modest impact.
In Baghdad, however, it is not US President Barack Obama but “Haji” Putin who is the talk of the town, as Iraqis — or at least the majority Shia — welcome the arrival of a new potential saviour.
Reporting from Najaf on the sudden upsurge in pro-Putin sentiment, the New York Times quoted Shia parliamentarian Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum as saying: “What the people in the street care about is how to get Daesh out of Iraq. Now they feel Russia is more serious than the United States.”
Moscow may not yet have joined the fight in Iraq but it is fostering a tighter relationship with Baghdad, possibly in anticipation of such an eventuality.
For the time being, Washington remains Iraq’s dominant strategic partner. On the day that the Russian upper house gave the green light for Putin’s air strikes in Syria, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met US Vice-President Joe Biden on the margin of the UN General Assembly in New York to reaffirm their commitment to equipping and training forces to combat ISIS.
Perhaps to underline that the United States is not the only friend in the fight, Abadi also found time the same day to meet Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Since the Russian air campaign began September 30th, Iraqi officials have been quoted as saying that Iran was instrumental in encouraging Putin to launch the intervention on behalf of their ally Assad. The anonymous officials said Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, went to Moscow in July to persuade the Russian leader that air strikes against ISIS were imperative. Neither the Kremlin nor Tehran has officially confirmed that such a meeting took place.
Three days before the launch of the air campaign, the Abadi government announced that Iraq, Russia, Iran and Syria had agreed to form a joint intelligence committee in Baghdad to harmonise efforts to fight ISIS. That caught American officials on the back foot, raising the prospect of a Russian-led initiative, grouping three Shia-led states and operating out of the Iraqi capital, and ostensibly sidelining Washington. Their only option was to quibble about the inclusion of Syria.
“We recognise that Iraq has an interest in sharing information on [ISIS] with other governments in the region who are also fighting [ISIS],” US Army Colonel Steve Warren, the US military spokesman in Baghdad, said. “We do not support the presence of Syrian government officials who are part of a regime that has brutalised its own citizens.”
Speaking September 28th in New York, Abadi defended the intelligence agreement and, sounding like a man who had been well briefed in advance on Moscow’s subsequent justification for intervention, added: “During the past three months, there has been an interest by Russia to fight Daesh, as many terrorists who are fighting with it are Russian who would return to Russia to carry out terrorist acts.”
Russia likes to stress that it only intervenes when it receives a legal request from an internationally recognised government. A principal difference in the approach of the Western allies and Russia was that “they do not comply with international law, while we do”, according to Ivanov.
Abadi welcomed the Russian air strikes in Syria and said at the outset that he would welcome similar action in Iraq. However, he had yet to discuss operations with Russian officials. “It’s a possibility. If we get the offer we’ll consider it and I would welcome it.”
It is also a possibility that Iraq is trying to put pressure on its American ally to provide even more robust support to Baghdad.