Frustrated with the United States’ slow progress against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Iraq is flirting with the idea of taking on Russia as its primary partner in the battle. The Iraqi military announced last week that it had reached an intelligence-sharing deal with Iran, Russia, and Syria. Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, recently said that he would be open to the idea of allowing Russian air strikes in Iraq. And the highly influential Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for greater international involvement in the fight against ISIS, hinting that he, too, would welcome Russian support.
Iraq has a history of seeking additional weaponry from Russia whenever it believes that U.S. efforts have fallen short. In 2013, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a $4.2 billion arms deal with Russia after the United States delayed the delivery of F-16s to Iraq, partly out of fears in Washington about how Maliki was planning to use the jets. And after an apparently unsatisfactory trip to the United States in April of this year, Abadi traveled to Russia to appeal for more arms—a request that the government of President Vladimir Putin granted.
The Iraqis have increasingly come to prefer dealing with the Russians. One source from the Iraqi Foreign Ministry complained to me of the U.S. insistence on training Iraqis in the use of antitank missiles, which, the source scoffed, “ISIS farmers can figure out how to use.” He added that the Russians would never insist on such patronizing restrictions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed as much on September 27, when he told Russian press that his country was prepared to supply Iraq with modern weaponry without presenting any political conditions—unlike, he said, other arms suppliers.
Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi went even further during a visit to Moscow earlier this year, in which he said that “in the battles we are fighting now, Russian weapons have proved themselves as the very best. I know that the Americans can’t supply us with such weapons,” adding that the Russians are better able to deal with a “war of attrition” in which Iraq needs continuous and large infusions of arms. Beyond the formal military establishment, Iraq’s Shiite militias have also been vocal in their support of Russian intervention, with a senior figure in the Badr Brigade saying that the group would “strongly welcome” Russian air strikes in Iraq. A spokesman for Asaib Ahl al-Haq said that the group fully supported Russia’s increasing role in the conflict, because the United States is “not serious” about defeating ISIS.
But betting on Russia would be a colossal mistake for Iraq. The Russians would likely go in hard and strong, as they are doing in neighboring Syria, with little regard for civilian casualties and without a strategy to deal with the political drivers of the conflict. Although the heavy bombardment of ISIS positions may be satisfying in the short term, it is likely to exacerbate the conflict in the medium term by alienating the Sunni civilian populations currently trapped under ISIS rule.
The Barack Obama administration has the right plan for liberating Iraq from ISIS, but it has been too cautious in its execution. To make progress in this sluggish war, win back the confidence of its Iraqi partners, and stave off another Russian intervention, the United States should double down on its strategy to defeat ISIS.
The U.S. military strategy in Iraq has been driven by the belief that long-term success against ISIS requires the buy-in and active participation of local Sunni communities. Based on the lessons from the 2007 Sunni Awakening, during which an estimated 100,000 Sunni tribal fighters joined forces with the United States to drive al Qaeda out of Sunni territory, U.S. forces are painstakingly trying to rebuild relationships with local Sunnis. In fact, a key reason that the Obama administration decided, on June 10, to send 450 additional troops to Iraq was to encourage more Sunni tribal fighters to join the battle.
Read more: foreignaffairs.com