But much depends on whether Baghdad can guarantee Iraq's Sunnis safety from sectarian reprisals and welcomes them back in the fold as equals
Firas Al-Atraqchi is an associate professor of practice at the Journalism and Mass Communication department at the American University in Cairo. He previously worked as a senior editor at Al Jazeera’s English-language website.
Originally appeared at The BRICS Post
Russia, like the US in Iraq, has chosen to militarily intervene in Syria for the purpose of defeating extremist Islamist groups, and stemming the tide of Europe-bound refugees by stabilizing the region they are fleeing.
On Wednesday and Thursday, it launched the first air raids against foreign-backed Islamist rebel groups fighting to depose Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
The move came four days after Russian President Vladimir Putin told the United Nations General Assembly that world powers should support Al Assad in his fight against Islamist rebel groups, including the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS).
According to CNN, US officials said they were given only one hour notice before the air raids began.
A Russian general visited the US embassy in Baghdad and delivered the message.
US media pundits quickly accused Putin of “propping up” Assad.
But this is hardly a novel idea; Moscow has always maintained that the only way to end the threat of Islamic extremism in Syria – and Iraq – is to work with, not against, Assad.
The fact that the message was delivered in Baghdad is poignant.
It was only this week that an Iraqi military spokesperson announced the sharing of intelligence with Russia, Syria and Iran.
What should truly be disconcerting for Washington and its Arab allies, however, is how quickly and secretly Moscow was able to form an anti-ISIL coalition with Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran.
On Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush blamed the Obama administration’s 2010 disengagement from Iraq for allowing ISIL to grow, and for shortsighted policy since then which forced Russia’s chessboard move in the region.
He’s not entirely wrong.
For nearly a year, the US has spearheaded a coalition which restricted itself to aerial bombardment of ISIL positions in Iraq and Syria; Russia has chosen a much more engaged military presence in the latter.
It should be no surprise if Russian forces carry out limited-scope military operations against anti-Assad Islamist militias.
Russia’s campaign in Syria could potentially halt the Nusra Front’s and ISIL’s crawl to Damascus – much to the chagrin of Arab Gulf States – or at the very least force a stalemate that could lead to some kind of political compromise that would allow President Bashar Al Assad retain power for the near future.
Russia says that thousands of its citizens have joined the ranks of ISIL and Nusra and does not want this radical faction return home with ideas of Jihad and creating a caliphate ripe in their minds.
Russia fought and lost a misguided war in Afghanistan; it wouldn’t begin a new military adventure unless it were absolutely seen as a last resort.
Russia, therefore, wants to ensure that the Mosul and Ramadi scenarios in Iraq are not repeated in Damascus.
Moscow could yet see the fruits of its military – and political – approach.
Washington, on the other hand, is likely to scramble to salvage what it can of its Middle East policies, especially if it continues to entertain the Saudi Arabian position on Assad.
Saudi Ambassador to Washington Adel Jubeir told US media this week that it was inconceivable to imagine a scenario where Assad is allowed to retain power – even for an interim transitional period.
Baghdad is critical
If Russia succeeds in forcing a military stalemate which produces a political resolution to the Syrian crisis, ISIL will have been delivered a significant blow.
It will lose nearly half of the territory it controls in the region and likely retreat to its remaining base of operations in Iraq.
US and Iraqi commanders have long argued whether to destroy ISIL in Iraq or Syria first.
But even if it is forced out of Syria, will military air power alone defeat ISIL in Iraq?
Henry Kissinger is believed to have famously said that the “road to Jerusalem is through Baghdad”.
Said some time in the early 1970s, the statement expresses the former secretary of state’s conviction that the Arab-Israeli conflict could only be resolved if Iraq is either subdued or coerced to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
Four decades later, Iraq is still central to Middle East events, but this time the statement can be modified to the “road to Baghdad is through Baghdad”.
ISIL is an immediate threat to Middle East security. It has grown and expanded into areas where political and security vacuums persist: Afghanistan, Egypt’s Sinai, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and even gained the allegiance of Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Putin said as much at the UNGA last week.
ISIL needs to be eradicated in its points of origin – Iraq and Syria. But current US-led strategies in Iraq will inevitably fail because ISIL’s expansion came about due to political, not solely military, incompotence.
While an US election issue, the debate about ISIL should consider where ISIL came from, what it wants to achieve and how it can be defeated. What are the socio-political factors which helped spawn and sustain ISIL?
Current US policy also fails to account for the political impasse in Baghdad, which has played right into ISIL’s hands.
For example, the same politicians that were blamed for much of Iraq’s demise in the formative years since 2003 effectively remained in positions of power and influence.
It was only after hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets last month that current Prime Minister Haider Abadi abolished the three vice-presidencies and removed his predecessor (and divisive) Nour Al Maliki.
The Obama administration has pretty much remained on the sidelines as Iraq’s political stability in Baghdad diminished, and the various factions squabbled over office and influence.
No options for Sunnis
In 2008, Obama campaigned on a platform that the Iraq war was misguided and should have never happened. However, his administration kept the status quo in place and allowed the seeds of division to grow.
Iraq is in an economic, political, security and social mess. Aerial bombardment might resolve some problems, but given that the country is on the verge of collapse, this same strategy could create even bigger ones.
The Islamic State is well aware that it can only grow and gain loyalty when the disenfranchised Sunnis have no other options before them.
In that respect, the government in Baghdad has played a significant role in inadvertently helping ISIL strengthen its hold on northern and western Iraq.
By refusing to integrate the Sunnis in the military and political processes in Iraq, Maliki delivered Sunni dominated regions into the hands of the Islamic State.
A majority of Sunnis in Iraq do not agree with the Islamic State and if offered a choice would prefer a civilian and secular-led system of governance.
However, they have been forced into a corner because they are not offered any role to play in the political process.
This dynamic can only be changed if the political establishment in Baghdad is changed.
Pointedly, the only way to deal with the most critical issue in the Middle East today – the ISIS spectre- is to reach or impose a political balance of governance in Baghdad.
Enfranchised Sunni communities – some of which are already being trained to fight ISIL – will become a powerful force stripping the Islamist extremists of safe havens.
ISIL will no longer be able to brand itself as protector of Sunnis in the face of sectarian militias.
Senior US diplomats and military commanders separately acknowledged – whether it was before a Congressional hearing or in statements made to the media – that the lack of “political reconciliation” is hampering the campaign to defeat ISIL.
Crisis of failure
While the Obama administration appears to be befuddled when it comes to Iraq, there are those who understand that Washington needs to return to the drawing board to help fashion a more inclusive government in Baghdad.
However, that would mean that Washington would have to admit that its approach to Iraq had been wrong from the get go.
It would also mean clashing with Iran, which likes the current Iraq government just fine and has actually blocked the rise of Shia secular politicians – such as Iyad Allawi – who was on the verge of becoming prime minister in 2010.
A Tehran-Washington clash about the grand ol’ prize Iraq could harden the positions of right-wingers in both Iran and the US, and potentially undermine the nuclear deal signed in Vienna in July.
The revolving door of prime ministers that were all strongly endorsed by Washington in the past few years also received their blessings from Iran.
And with every new prime minister in Iraq, Washington’s secretaries of state heralded a more stable Iraqi government in the making.
As we see now, nothing was further from the truth.