Moscow Beefs Up Military Support for Iraq

BY John Hudson, Gordon Lubold
Foreign Policy | JUNE 29, 2014

Moscow dispatched jet fighters and military trainers to Iraq to boost the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, highlighting a growing Syrian, Iranian, and now Russian effort to bolster Maliki in his fight against Islamist extremists.

The shipment of Russian airplanes follows days of Syrian airstrikes on targets from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and stepped-up military assistance from Tehran. The Obama administration continues to weigh air strikes against ISIS. In the meantime, the assistance from Tehran, Damascus, and Moscow threatens to further reduce Washington’s potential leverage over Maliki as the administration pushes him to mount a serious outreach effort to the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

For more than a year, Baghdad urged Washington to speed up the delivery of F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters as it battled for control of its own country. However, members of Congress repeatedly held up the deliveries due to unease about Maliki’s ethno-centric leadership, which disproportionately favors the country’s Shiite population. 

A senior Iraqi official pointed out that the latest support from Moscow demonstrated America’s diminished role in the conflict. "The American influence is getting sidelined … due to the lack of security and military support to the Iraqi government and people in its war of survival," the official told Foreign Policy.

According to The New York Times, the military advisers arrived this weekend to help set up the planes, which will include 12 SU-25 ground-attack fighter jets. The senior Iraqi official said that five of the SU-25 planes had arrived in Iraq on Saturday as part of an "expected" delivery of jets from the Russians. Baghdad is hoping the aircraft will bolster efforts to seize back control of a large swath of territory taken by Sunni rebels led by ISIS. On Saturday, Iraqi security forces with tanks and helicopters launched an offensive to retake the northern city of Tikrit. Due to conflicting reports, it’s unclear how successful the offensive to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown has been.

A senior Pentagon official acknowledged the Times report and said it would not affect U.S. assistance to the country. "Our mission remains the same: to protect U.S. personnel and interests; assess the state of the [Iraqi Security Forces] and [ISIS]; continue to provide ample [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] coverage, and prepare to assist the [Iraqi Security Forces] in an advisory capacity," Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told Foreign Policy Sunday.

In the past, hawkish lawmakers including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that failing to deliver arms to Iraq could result in adversaries such as Russia stepping in to fill the void. However, other powerful lawmakers such as Bob Mendendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, placed holds on the delivery of the equipment citing concerns about Maliki, who has increasingly stoked sectarian tensions in Iraq following the departure of U.S. troops in 2011.

In January, Menendez finally lifted his objections to the transfer of 24 Ah-64E Apaches after receiving assurances from the Obama administration that Baghdad wouldn’t use the attack helicopters against civilians, according to a Senate aide. The emergence of Moscow and Tehran in Iraq could mean multiple things for the United States.

Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who closely tracks Iraq’s security situation, said there are "two angels on Iraq’s shoulder" at the moment – the U.S. is on one, and Russia, Iran and Syria are on the other. But in terms of providing effective and timely assistance to its allies, the model offered by America’s adversaries seemed to be more effective.

"To be honest, the other model has a much better track record of helping out its allies in the Middle East than we do," Knights, now traveling in Japan, said. With Iran and Russia stepping up to the plate, the U.S. risks losing influence in Maliki’s government.

On the other hand, Maliki has repeatedly failed to heed U.S. warnings that his chauvinistic sectarian leadership is tearing the country apart. As the conflict in Iraq increasingly takes on the character of a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites, Washington is loath to be viewed as an advocate on either side of the bloodshed.



Russian Jets and Experts Sent to Iraq to Aid Army
NYT | JUNE 29, 2014

BAGHDAD — Iraqi government officials said Sunday that Russian experts had arrived in Iraq to help the army get 12 new Russian warplanes into the fight against Sunni extremists, while the extremists declared their leader the caliph, or absolute ruler, of all jihadi organizations worldwide.

The Russian move was at least an implicit rebuke to the United States, which the Iraqis believe has been too slow to supply American F-16s and attack helicopters — although the United States is now in the process of providing both.

“In the coming three or four days the aircraft will be in service to support our forces in the fight” against the insurgents of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said Gen. Anwar Hama Ameen, the commander of the Iraqi Air Force, referring to five SU-25 aircraft that were flown into Iraq aboard Russian cargo planes Saturday night, and two more expected later Sunday.

Also on Sunday, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria released a 34-minute audio recording of a speech by its official spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who said that the insurgency’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was now the world’s caliph and as such had declared all other jihadi organizations void and under his direct control, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremists’ online presence.

The audio speech was released on an ISIS-linked Twitter feed, the group said.

ISIS’ bombastic announcement of its hegemony over the world’s Islamic extremists was little more than a propaganda ploy, but it was indicative of its growing ambitions.

ISIS, originally formed from the broken remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq, split with Al Qaeda last year when that group’s leaders ordered it to leave Syria.

Since then, ISIS has battled with Qaeda-linked jihadis in Syria, as well as with non-extremist rebel forces there, for control of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

The ISIS announcement also revealed Mr. Baghdadi’s alleged real name — Ibrahim Ibn Awwad Ibn Ibrahim Ali Ibn Muhammad al-Badri al-Hashimi al-Husayni al-Qurashi — and said he would be known as Caliph Ibrahim for short.

A caliphate is a Muslim empire that in theory encompasses all Muslims worldwide, and is a term used to describe empires like that of the Ottomans in Turkey in the 15th to 20th centuries, as well as those that did rule much of the civilized world in the early days of Islam.

In present-day Baghdad, the Iraqi Air Force commander, General Ameen, said that Russian military experts had arrived to help set up the new SU-25 warplanes, but that they would stay only a short time. The last five Russian aircraft would arrive by Monday, he said.

Last week, President Obama ordered 300 American military advisers into the country, and the Iranians have reportedly sent advisers from their Republican Guards’ Quds Force.

At least three United States Special Forces teams are said to have been deployed north of Baghdad in recent days, tasked with carrying out a survey of Iraqi forces to determine their condition and needs.

This was the first report of Russian military aides in the country, although General Ameen said they were experts, not advisers.

American officials, citing intelligence reports, have said that Iran has been sending surveillance drones over Iraq as well as supplying the government with military equipment and support.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said the Iraqis, in an arrangement with the Russian Ministry of Defense, had ordered a dozen SU-25s, a ground-attack fighter jet useful for close air support operations.

“They are coming very fast,” General Ameen said in a telephone interview, “because we need them in this conflict against the terrorists as soon as possible.” He said the Russians would leave within around three days after the aircraft were ready for service.

The Iraqi military used SU-25 jets extensively during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, but they have not been used in Iraq since 2002 or earlier.

Still, General Ameen said they would soon see action again. “We have pilots who have long experience in this plane and of course we have the help of the Russian friends and the experts who came with these aircraft to prepare them,” he said. “This will produce a very strong punishment against the terrorists in the coming days.”

Sunni jihadi fighters were reported on Sunday to have stalled a government offensive to retake the central Iraqi city of Tikrit. Insurgents had apparently regained control of key government buildings in the center of Tikrit, according to witnesses who reported seeing the black flag of ISIS flying over many important buildings.

The day before, Iraqi flags had been hoisted on many of them, as Iraqi troops carried out a ground assault after a three-day operation intended to take the city and roll back the insurgents’ advance toward Baghdad.

Iraqi forces carried out repeated airstrikes, mostly using helicopters, on insurgent targets throughout the city on Sunday for the fourth day in a row, witnesses said.

The Iraqi Army remained in control of roads leading into Tikrit — Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and a longtime stronghold of Sunni hard-liners, about 100 miles north of Baghdad — as well as the campus of Salahuddin University in Tikrit and a military base, Camp Speicher, on the outskirts of the city.

The military’s advance, supported by tanks and helicopter gunships, was hampered by a large number of bombs planted along the roads, a common tactic of the insurgents.

According to a security official in Tikrit, speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of government policy, ISIS fighters had kidnapped six relatives of Maj. Gen. Jumaa al-Jabouri, deputy commander of Iraqi military operations in Salahuddin Province, holding them hostage and destroying their homes in the eastern part of the city.

What appeared to be a jumbo Russian transport aircraft, from which the SU-25 warplanes were unloaded, was shown Saturday night on Iraqiya, the state television network, at what was believed to be an air base in Taji, a short distance north of Baghdad.

The new aircraft “will increase and support the strength and capability of the Iraqi air forces to eliminate terrorism,” a statement issued by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense said.

The Iraqis have sought to buy American F-16s and Apache helicopter gunships. The sale of the Apaches had been delayed by concerns in Congress, which feared Mr. Maliki would use them to suppress his political opponents, but the United States has now agreed to provide them.

The first two F-16s are expected to be delivered in September or October, and the first six Apaches will arrive this fall as part of a lease. But it will take months to train the Apache pilots.

The Iraqi Air Force currently has only two propeller-driven Cessna aircraft equipped to fire guided Hellfire missiles, which the Iraqis ran out of last week. Over the past three days, 75 new Hellfires were delivered to Iraq by the American government.

The air force also had about 180 helicopters, many of them gunships, but six of those were destroyed in the insurgents’ attack on Mosul, and an additional 60 were damaged.

There have also been unconfirmed reports that Iran was prepared to return some of the Iraqi warplanes that Saddam Hussein flew to Iran in 1991 to escape American destruction. Those included 24 French F-1 Mirage fighters and 80 Russian jets.

Duraid Adnan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Tikrit.



Russia’s military bid in Iraq
Paul J. Saunders
Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East
June 29, 2014

Thus far, Iraq’s rapid unraveling has not been a major concern for Moscow. The situation in the country rarely features prominently in Russian news reporting — where Ukraine and Russian domestic matters dominate — and does not appear to be a top priority for senior Russian officials, though Russian President Vladimir Putin did recently express “full support” for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s efforts to combat militants driving the Iraqi military from cities and towns in northern and western Iraq. Notwithstanding some important interests in Iraq and the Middle East, Russia’s government is unlikely to get too involved there.

Broadly speaking, as Fyodor Lukyanov has written in Al-Monitor, developments in Iraq have served primarily to confirm pre-existing views in Russia. This has multiple components. First, with respect to the United States, the new crisis has been an I-told-you-so moment — demonstrated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s reminder of Moscow’s frequent assertions at the time of the US invasion that “the adventurism the Americans and the British started there would not end well.” This has been a regular refrain for Russian officials and commentators during every reversal since 2003.

Second, the new crisis in Iraq aligns with Moscow’s view that it was a mistake for the United States to prolong Syria’s civil war by aiding Syria’s rebels, however weakly, rather than supporting or at least tolerating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s efforts to crush the Islamist groups trying to oust his regime and now Iraq’s, too. Here, Russia’s complaints focus not only on the United States and other Western nations, however; Syria’s spillover into Iraq reinforces the widespread Russian sense that in acting as patrons of Sunni Islamist militants in Syria and elsewhere, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are up to no good.

What the Kremlin is actually prepared to do about the instability in Iraq is less clear. Russia certainly favors stability in Iraq over chaos and prefers Maliki to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS); perhaps ironically, Russia has won a more significant role in Iraq’s oil sector than many Russian officials likely expected a decade ago, including in the huge West Qurna-2 oil field. Nevertheless, it bears remembering that for all Putin’s and Lavrov’s criticism of the George W. Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq, Russia did not make it a major issue in US-Russia relations at the time. More important, Russia did not create problems for the United States in Iraq during the invasion or the long US occupation of the country.

Still, Russia has reportedly sold a dozen Soviet-era Su-25 fighter jets to Iraq that could help in attacking the militants. Some of the planes have already been delivered — though apparently in pieces, since they arrived in cargo planes with Russian experts, who are likely necessary to make them flight-ready. In a rebuke to the United States, Maliki has grumbled that Iraq had been “deluded” by the “long-winded” process required to buy US warplanes and argued that if Baghdad had earlier purchased Russian, British or French jets it might have averted the current crisis. He expressed hope that “God willing within one week this force will be effective and will destroy the terrorists’ dens.” While Iraqi pilots have already had some experience with the Su-25 and should be able to take to the skies quickly, Maliki may be somewhat overoptimistic about their impact.

The Russian aircraft sale essentially represents the continuation of Moscow’s policy in Syria on the other side of the Syria-Iraq border — though interestingly, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf bent over backward to avoid criticizing the deal when questioned on the matter at some length during a June 27 daily press briefing. Harf said, “We don’t oppose legal Iraqi efforts to meet their urgent military requirements,” and “We share a goal here of helping them fight this threat” — before acknowledging that US F-16 deliveries could face further delays.

Nevertheless, Russia appears unlikely to do much beyond selling weapons to Iraq’s government; unlike in Syria, the broad alignment of US and Russian objectives makes Kremlin diplomatic support unnecessary. Moscow’s relatively limited role reflects both its limited tools, especially during a simultaneous and, for Russia, far more important crisis in Ukraine, as well as a reluctance to get too deeply involved — probably in no small part due to a perceived risk of blowback into Russia itself. A senior Kremlin official expressed precisely this concern to me and a small group of colleagues in 2003 when explaining Russia’s unwillingness to support the US invasion. Given the key role that Chechen fighters appear to be playing in the Iraqi and Syrian insurgencies, it would be hard for Moscow to ignore this possibility today.

More fundamentally, however, Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East remains largely defensive even two decades since its post-Soviet independence. Despite Russia’s significant security, economic and political interests in the broader Middle East — a region that touches Russia’s periphery — Moscow’s posture has rarely gone beyond protecting its security interests and asserting a geopolitical role while seeking to expand its commercial ties.

Taking into account that Russia’s economic interests in the Middle East remain quite small compared with its other two neighboring regions, Europe and Asia, and that instability in places like Iraq or Syria has indirect security consequences for Russia rather than direct ones, the Kremlin’s geopolitical aims may in some respect be the most important of the three: Influence beyond its immediate neighborhood is essential to Russia’s claim to global great power status. From this perspective, the Middle East offers far more opportunities than Europe, Asia or the Western hemisphere, which are the home regions of other key powers, and also more than Africa, where Russia has less at stake. Fortunately for Russia, the combination of arms sales, a UN Security Council veto and active diplomacy is probably enough to meet its needs.

Iraq’s Christians See Putin As Savior

Reeling from regional developments and disillusioned with the West, some Iraqi Christians are looking to Russia for support
Peter Schwartzstein
The Daily Beast | 06.29.14

After a decade of church bombings, targeted killings, and anti-Christian workplace discrimination, Ramy Youssef has finally tired of Iraq’s halting progress and is intent on emigrating.

“I don’t want to leave. I don’t want these terrorists to do what no one’s ever done before: push Assyrians out of our historic homeland, but I can’t work like this,” said the fresh-faced IT technician, his voice rising, as he sipped tea in his cousin’s Erbil liquor store a month after death threats forced him to abandon his business in Baghdad.

Youssef will be the last of his immediate family to jet off—joining roughly two-thirds of Iraq’s pre-war population of 1.5 million Christians who’ve fled abroad or trudged north to Kurdistan. Before he goes, though, he’s keen to set the record straight and settle some old scores.

“This is America’s fault.  It’s the Muslims who are killing us, but this never would have happened if the West hadn’t turned our lives upside down,” he fumed. “Maybe we’ll be able to return one day if we have proper allies.”

Enter Putin stage right.

As far as some of his Iraqi co-religionists are concerned, there’s a ready-made alternative to American influence out there and they’re frantically trying to solicit its support.

“Russia proved through history that it’s the only defender of Christians,” said Ashur Giwargis, who heads the Assyrian Patriotic Movement (APM), which for two years has energetically lobbied the Kremlin to support an independent Assyrian Christian state in northern Iraq.

Until recently, the Beirut-based exile and his colleagues, who are scattered among the global Iraqi diaspora, had little to show for their efforts, but in January, as Western-Russian tensions escalated over Ukraine, Giwargis was summoned to Moscow to meet government officials.

“They assured their support for the Assyrian cause, but we’re looking for a serious Russian stand in the international arena,” he said.

While they wait, APM members are busy currying favor by disseminating the Kremlin’s message, appearing at Russian embassy events, and cheering its foreign policy maneuvers elsewhere in the world.

“With the growing Americo-European incitement for the Republic of Ukraine to join the European Union … the Crimean parliament’s decision to join the Russian Federation came as pleasant news for the oppressed Christian peoples around the world,” read a public letter of congratulations dispatched to the Russian Embassy in Lebanonin Mid-March.

“Russian professional diplomacy has proven able to contain conspiracies against vulnerable peoples and states,” Giwargis wrote in another missive.

There are few assurances that Russia—which is already held in low regard bymuch of the Arab World for its stance on Syria—will further jeopardize its relations across the region by throwing its weight behind Iraq’s Christians. Nor, for that matter, does APM’s courting of Putin necessarily command serious support among many Iraqi Christians, of whom only 10-15 percent favor its pro-active approach, according to several church officials.

But the APM’s fishing for alternative patrons is illustrative of the tremendous anger many Eastern Christians feel towards the West for its perceived indifference to their plight.

“The West is not Christian,” raged Aziz Emmanuel al-Zebari, a Chaldean Catholic church official, when we met in Erbil’s buzzy Christian quarter on a blazingly hot Ascension Day late in May. “They destroyed us by installing a government based on Islamic sects in which we have no place,” he added, as a sermon in Aramaic rang out from the distinctive Ziggurat-style cathedral in the background.

Amid all the bombast, Iraq’s Christians have some legitimate grievances. Once protected by Saddam—though subject to the same tyrannical rulings as the rest of the population—the community was left brutally exposed when the civil war that followed the US invasion of 2003 devolved into bitter sectarian strife.

Many Christians had initially rallied to the U.S.-led coalition’s side, enlisting as army translators and hailing its early successes, but as Western troops outgrew their welcome, Christians were damned by their association with the occupying powers.

“Muslims thought we were like the Americans, and so as they became more unpopular, our problems increased,” remembered Ramy Youssef, whose once friendly Baghdad neighbors ostracized his family as the occupation dragged on. (Some had it much worse. The U.S.’s hiring of a number of Lebanese Christian interpreters meant that anyone with a Lebanese accent was deemed suspect, and a number of visiting Beirutis were allegedly mistakenly killed.)

Among the many charges leveled at the U.S. and its partners is that it failed to exercise a duty of care towards a minority whose secure position it had undermined.

“When everything got violent, the Shiites received help from Iran, the Sunnis had the Gulf, and us? Well, we were left unprotected,” said an Erbil-based civil engineer who asked to withhold his name.

The Iraqi Christian insistence that the U.S. and its coalition partners have done nothing to right past wrongs doesn’t ring entirely true though.

Several hundred thousand Iraqi Christians took advantage of loosened immigration laws to move to America.The California diocese has mushroomed from 30,000 to 70,000 people since 2003, while Michigan alone has taken in over 120,000 Chaldeans and Assyrians.

But here too, some Iraqi Christians have taken issue with American policy.

“In opening its doors, the U.S. is weakening those are who left behind,” said al-Zebari, who’s fearful that a further diminution in Christian numbers might lead to awkward questions about the Christian quota of five seats in the Baghdad and Kurdish regional parliaments.

Meanwhile, Putin’s continuing defense of Assad in neighboring Syria, at a time of peak unrest in Iraq, is seen as an admirable demonstration of Russia’s commitment to minority rights.

A sponsor like the Russians never would have allowed the Iraqi government to run roughshod over its Christian citizens, al-Zebari believes.

“They’ve always stood up for Christians. I’m sure they’d do more for us in our ancestral lands,” he reasoned, echoing Giwargis’ talking points.

But even if Russia were to somehow provide assistance, it remains to be seen whether there would be many Christians left to aid.

2013 was a good year—with only 500 families fleeing abroad from northern Iraq, as opposed to roughly 6500 families a year absconding in the immediate aftermath of the invasion—but ISIS’s rampage through the historically Christian Nineveh province, its gutting of the Holy Spirit Church, and its use of the ancient Mar Behnam monastery as a base for militant operations threatens to trigger an additional exodus.

In the meantime, it’s far from clear what—if any—effect, Russia’s increasingly cozy relationship with Middle Eastern Christians will have on the regional dynamic.

Egypt’s signing of a $2 billion defense deal with Russia in February raised hackles in Washington, which has equipped much of the Egyptian military since the 1970s, while Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s call for Russian jets to halt ISIS’s advance after the Obama Administration rejected his initial approach threatens to muddle an already complicated mess.