Is Iraq's New Alliance With Russia A Game Changer for Region?

Iraq’s $4.2 billion arms deal with Russia has resonated throughout the Middle East, where battle lines are rapidly being redrawn as the crisis in Syria deepens. Haifa Zaiter, writing in As-Safir, examines the nations and groups who are most affected by the Russian-Iraqi marriage.

al-monitor Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on Oct. 10, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Kirril Kudryavtsev/Pool.

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russian diplomacy in syrian crisis, russian, iran-iraq relations, egyptian-iranian relations, egypt

Oct 12, 2012

The visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Russia brought with it many messages. Everybody would agree that this visit holds significance, especially in light of the complex events in the region.

However, there is disagreement among observers on the background of this visit and what exactly it means.

In light of the possible outcome of a rapprochement between Moscow and Baghdad, one must examine its possible implications for the Syrian crisis. We cannot ignore the American, Turkish and Iranian positions in this regard. Also, one must consider the major $4.2 billion arms deal signed between Iraq and Russia.

First of all, before addressing the regional and international dimension of the visit, one must take into account the domestic reaction to the visit, which — naturally — is divided.

One camp believes that Maliki started to place his strongest cards on the table. He has managed to open up internationally, and to step a little bit out from under the US cloak. The other camp sees the visit, especially the issue of armament, as a sort of existential threat.

Ihsan al-Shammari, a professor of political science at Baghdad University, explains this idea to As-Safir. According to the professor, the Kurds feel the most threatened by this visit. They believe that arms in the hands of Maliki would pose a major threat to their historic dream of secession, which was further promoted when the Syrian crisis erupted.

Moreover, the divide within the Iraqi domestic arena has surfaced again, between those who support an alliance between Baghdad and Tehran, on the one hand, and between Baghdad and Washington on the other. There is another emerging camp, which believes that US influence will not be harmed as a result of this visit, especially given that Maliki is not able to escape from under the US umbrella.

This point of view is supported by Abdel Halilm al-Rahimi, an Iraqi writer and politician, who told As-Safir that Iraq has a "strategic alliance" with the US, and it would not be in Iraq’s interest to harm it.

Rahimi, a member of the State of Law Coalition — which is led by Maliki — stressed that the visit was to make sure that Iraq is not exposed to any threats due to its commitment to the US alone, as an international ally. On the other hand, the visit aimed at discussing the Syrian crisis, as Iraq seeks to remain balanced in its approach towards the Syrian situation.

How is that? Rahimi explains that the US position has changed, as it has recently sought to calm the situation. According to The New York Times, Saudi Arabia and Qatar limited their military aid to Syrian fighters, after "citing US fears."

Moreover, Maliki is hoping to reach a settlement with the Russians to help the non-armed Syrian opposition, paving the way for a common ground between the two sides in the coming phase.

In fact, many parties emphasized that the Americans were not concerned about such a visit. According to Iranian researcher Najaf Ali Marazai, they even gave it the "green light," contrary to rumors of a strain in Iraqi-US relations, with the beginning of the Syrian crisis and later on the accusations made against Iraq that it allowed an Iranian warplane to head to Syria through its territories.

Marazai, founder of the Civilization Intellectual Center, told As-Safir that: "The Middle East is witnessing a chaotic escalation. In the meantime, sporadic initiatives — whether from Turkey, Saudi Arabia or the West — are being placed on the table. Although they differ in details, all of these initiatives seek to destroy the existing equations in the absence of an alternative.”

Among the main consequences of the Arab revolutions is that the people have become difficult to manipulate and there has been a new reality, which allows Iran to forge new alliances in the region. Moreover, the recent truce called for by the US and Russia is likely to pave the way for a possible new alliance between Russia, China, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

According to the Iranian researcher, the significance of this initiative stems from the fact that it is an alternative to Egyptian President Morsi’s quartet contact group on Syria, which Iran realized in advanced would be aborted. 

Marazai explains that in light of the Egyptian initiative, Iran would stand alone facing Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. However, under the new initiative, Russia, China, Iraq and Syria will form a particularly strong alliance that includes members of the UN Security Council.

Thus, Marazai stressed his "optimism about the success of this initiative, although both parties must show flexibility in addressing [the Syrian crisis],'' and therefore agree on supporting the unarmed opposition.

In this context one must note that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is waiting for Prime Minister Maliki to return from Russia, so that he can pay him a visit in Iraq; this is according to the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, Hassan Dannai Far.

On the other hand, it seems that the Turks were very troubled by this visit. According to some Turkish sources, Turks fear the consequences of an Iraqi-Russian rapprochement on the Syrian crisis, especially given that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government and political project is closely tied to the development of the Syrian crisis.

In this context, Turkish writer and political analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs, Faeq Bouleut, says that Turkey cannot ignore this visit. It is only natural for the Turkish government to take into consideration any development in the Syrian crisis, which could take place following this visit, he said.

Bouleut ruled out any possible alliance between Russian and Iraq, describing the situation as mere repositioning.

Eventually, as the Syrian crisis intensifies and spills into the international arena, it is unlikely that Iraq alone will serve as a game changer. However, Baghdad is a major player in this equation, and reflects the will of great movements that are able to reshape the region.

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