The post-ISIS future of Iraq and Syria has been a topic of animated discussion among American think tankers, the assumption being that the US is staging a military comeback in Iraq and well on the way to establishing a long-term presence in Syria. But political winds are blowing in an opposite direction.
The ‘working visit’ by Iraq’s vice-president Nouri Maliki to Moscow this week signals the revival of Russia’s historical role as Iraq’s key partner. Maliki’s remarks in Moscow are very revealing:
“It’s well known that Russia has historically strong relations with Iraq, therefore we would like Russia to have a substantial presence in our country, both politically and militarily. This way, a balance would be established that would benefit the region, its peoples and its countries.”
Baghdad believes “in Russia’s role in solving most of the key international issues as well as improving stability and balance in our region and worldwide.”
A Russian presence in Iraq would bring the necessary balance which cannot be “undermined in a political sense in favour of any external party.”
“Today we need Russia’s greater involvement in Iraqi affairs, especially in the energy field. Now when we are done with Islamic State, Iraq needs investments in energy and trade.”
Moscow and Baghdad “should enhance… cooperation in countering terrorism in the region. We believe that both our countries are targets for terrorists and those who stand behind them.”
Maliki’s remarks found positive resonance with the Russian side. While receiving Maliki, President Vladimir Putin emphasised military-technical cooperation and a “proactive” role in that area. Putin cast the Russian-Iraqi relationship in the broader framework of “the situation in the region in general.” The latter remark takes into account the Iraq-Syria-Iran regional axis as a bulwark against terrorism.
The unity of Iraq and Syria is a core issue for Russia. Maliki told Putin that the fractured Iraqi polity where political power “continues to be divided on the religious or ethnic principle between the Sunnis, the Shiites, the Arabs, the Kurds, Christians and Muslims” becomes a breeding ground for terrorism and, therefore, Baghdad has prepared a “special project” to address this systemic deficiency. The Kremlin readout quoted Maliki as saying,
- “The idea is to restore real democracy, when the power is based on the victory of a political majority rather than on the assignment of quotas to various movements.”
In sum, Baghdad hopes to switch to a political system based on the ‘one-man, one-vote’ principle of representative rule, as in Syria or Iran. Clearly, the aim is to block foreign power from manipulating the minorities against the majority Shia community. No doubt, it will be a major reform not only in politico-economic terms, but also from the geopolitical perspective. Principally, Baghdad intends to resist any US-Israeli attempt to create an independent Kurdistan.
Maliki’s ‘working visit’ to Russia coincides with the signing of a defence agreement between Iraq and Iran. Maliki had signed an arms deal with Russia in 2012, estimated to be in the region of $4.2 billion (which couldn’t be implemented due to pressure from the Obama administration.) In sum, we’re witnessing a back-to-back effort by Iran and Russia to push back at US.
Fundamentally, Iraq’s power calculus is getting reset. The tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi’ite militia trained and equipped by Iran, who played a decisive role in defeating the ISIS, will likely get integrated into the Iraqi security forces. These battle-hardened militia, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashed al-Shaabi in Arabic) have moved into the deserts held by ISIS west of Mosul, massing around the town of Tal Afar and have taken a border crossing between Iraq and Syria.
They are in control of highways bisecting the Sunni heartland in western Iraq, which are used as vital military and civilian supply lines connecting Iran with Syria. According to official Iraqi figures, the Popular Mobilization Forces now number about 122,000 fighters. Clearly, the military balance in the region is dramatically shifting against the US (and Israel.) The Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrullah warned recently that hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite fighters in the region will jointly resist any future Israeli invasion.
In geopolitical terms, Russia and Iran have shared interest in the unity and stability of post-ISIS Iraq and Syria. Unsurprisingly, China is not far behind them, either.
Thus, China’s Special Envoy to Syria Xie Xiaoyan is currently on a regional tour. While in Tehran on Tuesday, he stressed that China’s stance vis-à-vis the Syrian endgame is similar to Russia and Iran’s. Xie announced that China is “ready to act upon its responsibility to reconstruct Syria and we are prepared for it.” (here and here)
Incidentally, on Tuesday China’s Exim Bank signed an agreement in Tehran on a financial package of US$1.5 billion for the upgrade of Iran’s trunk railway line connecting Tehran with Mashaad (near Turkmenistan border.) No doubt, Xie’s visit to Tehran flags that China has set its eyes on Iran as the gateway leading to Iraq and Syria.
Since March 2016 a China-Iran “Silk Road train” has been running once a month from Yiwu in China’s eastern Zhejiang province to Tehran. Its frequency is expected to increase once trade picks up. The “Silk Road train” slashes travel time from 45 days via sea route to less than 14 days. Clearly, China is positioning itself to play a major role in the reconstruction of Iraq and Syria and will be on the same page as Russia and Iran.