The Iraqi military has taken a brutal beating in its battles against ISIL. Even with the support of American and coalition airpower, the Iraqis have lost untold material and territory since ISIL overran much of the country’s Sunni Arab heartland these last months. News now that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi welcomes Russian airstrikes may not be what the Obama administration foresaw, but it may well spell the end of ISIL in the region. Here’s a look at the situation on the ground.
In an interview on France 24 television, the Iraqi PM went so far as to accuse the U.S.-led coalition of a lack of resolve in defeating ISIL. After over a year of massive bombing by the US led coalition, ISIL still has a stranglehold on much of Iraq’s territory. According to Abadi, the Iraqi leader seems frustrated at the ineffectiveness of the air cover provided his country’s forces, as well as at the widespread suffering the Islamic State has exacted. Now that Russia air forces have begun a campaign to support the ground forces of Syria’s Assad, the spotlight has spread to include the Iraqi front of the war on ISIL.
Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson encapsulated for reporters last week, Russia’s stance on Syria and Iraq. The Kremlin spokesman said Russia is not only targeting ISIS, but other groups and “organizations in coordination with the armed forces of Syria.” While this is clearly not on the US agenda, the strategy is in keeping with stabilizing first the Assad regime, and then the overall regional situation. At least this is how President Putin and his advisers portray the Russian campaign.
While western experts contend Russia is simply backing an old friend in Assad, other experts point to Russia’s initial attacked being consistent with any asymmetric warfare strategy. The Russian air forces, flying missions in support of Assad ground forces, is creates the basis for future “mopping up” exercises in Syria. The US and coalition efforts thus far, reflect a lack of coordination with any ground force, and resemble “Willy-nilly” ordinance disposal for some military experts. As the western media harps on with misinformation about the Russian air offensive, Russia’s Defense Ministry continually broadcasts via YouTube, the bombing missions carried out. Compared to US and the coalitions Central Command reports, this new form of transparent broadcasting of airstrikes berates further the American led campaign, one which has largely remained obscured as far as objectives are concerned.
Meanwhile, news from Tehran that hundreds of Iranian troops have landed in Syria to carry out the new ground of a wider strategy with combined arms. From the US side of the equation, the Pentagon has said it would not share U.S. intelligence with Russia, leaving some to wonder at the US mission. At the same time Iraq has voiced its disconcertedness over the US mission, Newsweek’s headlines read like a provocation for total war on Russia. “Can the U.S. Stop Putin Attacking Our Allies?” was Friday’s story by author Josh Siegel. And while the headline was probably chosen to garner readership, the irresponsibility of portraying Al-Queda and other jihadists as “allies” is less than circumspect. The US “allies” in question are an Al-Qaeda affiliate, known as the Al-Nusra Front, and other marginal extremist groups the CIA began funding as far back as 2006. But American backing of insurgents is no news, Iraq asking for Russian assistance will be.
Not long ago the Obama administration was mute as to the US involvement in this chaos, but today news Russia hit CIA-backed rebels in the first air strikes betrays a strategy the US has carried out for decades. These strategies have not been successful, unless ongoing war has been the goal all along. Regardless of Washington’s inclinations though, the sign from Iraq is pretty clear. Survival for that country may now depend more on Russia than the United States and the coalition. At the rate coalition air strikes are going, the 10,000 ISIL warriors the Pentagon claims to have killed with 7,162 air sorties, that’s only 1.39 fighters per air strike. At a cost of $10,000,000 a day, the American taxpayer would be better off paying the Russians at discounted prices to end ISIL. In three days Putin’s forces have already been more effective by far.
Now presidential hopeful, former Obama Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has come forth proclaiming she would try and impose a “no fly” zone over the region to allow civilian refugees free right of way. But there’s no doubt such a restriction would serve ISIL and the Al-Queda fighters as well as refugees too. Clinton’s “ideas” reveal for us all a clearer picture of Washington’s goals in this region. Arab Spring will be complete, or the United States will lose every ounce of credibility she ever had, one or the other. For Clinton and Obama, if Vladimir Putin’s Syria gambit is successful, their game will certainly have failed. All that needs to happen is for Iraq to request the Russians open a second air front. The writing is now on the wall as last week’s diplomatic gains by Mr. Putin following his UN address included; Russia, Iran, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and the government of Iraq, joining in a an intelligence-sharing arrangement against the Islamic State. The Baghdad government also approved the use of Iraqi airspace by Russian planes, and Russian personnel will be stationed at the aforementioned intelligence facility in Baghdad.
For the United States’ legacy in the Middle East to suffer it’s biggest blow ever, all that is required is a phone call from Bagdad to Moscow. Once Russian forces engage alongside Iraqi ground forces, the US will have but one option left, a broader coalition orchestrated not by the Pentagon, but along with Putin and Russia.
Phil Butler, is a policy investigator and analyst, a political scientist and expert on Eastern Europe.