Moscow dispatched jet fighters and military trainers to Iraq to boost the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, highlighting a growing Syrian, Iranian, and now Russian effort to bolster Maliki in his fight against Islamist extremists.
The shipment of Russian airplanes follows days of Syrian airstrikes on targets from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and stepped-up military assistance from Tehran. The Obama administration continues to weigh air strikes against ISIS. In the meantime, the assistance from Tehran, Damascus, and Moscow threatens to further reduce Washington's potential leverage over Maliki as the administration pushes him to mount a serious outreach effort to the country's Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
For more than a year, Baghdad urged Washington to speed up the delivery of F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters as it battled for control of its own country. However, members of Congress repeatedly held up the deliveries due to unease about Maliki's ethno-centric leadership, which disproportionately favors the country's Shiite population.
A senior Iraqi official pointed out that the latest support from Moscow demonstrated America's diminished role in the conflict. "The American influence is getting sidelined ... due to the lack of security and military support to the Iraqi government and people in its war of survival," the official told Foreign Policy.
According to the New York Times, the military advisers arrived this weekend to help set up the planes, which will include 12 SU-25 ground-attack fighter jets. The senior Iraqi official said that five of the SU-25 planes had arrived in Iraq on Saturday as part of an "expected" delivery of jets from the Russians. Baghdad is hoping the aircraft will bolster efforts to seize back control of a large swath of territory taken by Sunni rebels led by ISIS. On Saturday, Iraqi security forces with tanks and helicopters launched an offensive to retake the northern city of Tikrit. Due to conflicting reports, it's unclear how successful the offensive to retake Saddam Hussein's hometown has been.
A senior Pentagon official acknowledged the Times report and said it would not affect U.S. assistance to the country. "Our mission remains the same: to protect U.S. personnel and interests; assess the state of the [Iraqi Security Forces] and [ISIS]; continue to provide ample [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] coverage, and prepare to assist the [Iraqi Security Forces] in an advisory capacity," Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told Foreign Policy Sunday.
In the past, hawkish lawmakers including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that failing to deliver arms to Iraq could result in adversaries such as Russia stepping in to fill the void. However, other powerful lawmakers such as Bob Mendendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, placed holds on the delivery of the equipment citing concerns about Maliki, who has increasingly stoked sectarian tensions in Iraq following the departure of U.S. troops in 2011.
In January, Menendez finally lifted his objections to the transfer of 24 Ah-64E Apaches after receiving assurances from the Obama administration that Baghdad wouldn't use the attack helicopters against civilians, according to a Senate aide. The emergence of Moscow and Tehran in Iraq could mean multiple things for the United States.
Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who closely tracks Iraq's security situation, said there are "two angels on Iraq's shoulder" at the moment - the U.S. is on one, and Russia, Iran and Syria are on the other. But in terms of providing effective and timely assistance to its allies, the model offered by America's adversaries seemed to be more effective.
"To be honest, the other model has a much better track record of helping out its allies in the Middle East than we do," Knights, now traveling in Japan, said. With Iran and Russia stepping up to the plate, the U.S. risks losing influence in Maliki's government.
On the other hand, Maliki has repeatedly failed to heed U.S. warnings that his chauvinistic sectarian leadership is tearing the country apart. As the conflict in Iraq increasingly takes on the character of a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites, Washington is loath to be viewed as an advocate on either side of the bloodshed.