A Shift in Iraq’s International Allies

by Austin Michael Bodetti and Emily Ruth Murphy. Austin is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan. Emily is a student in the Political Science Honors Program and a research assistant at Boston College. She specializes in counterterrorism and relations between Islam and the West.

Iraq presents the difficulty of international relations. The Iraqi Civil War shows how a domestic problem may become an international one and how this international problem may then challenge the affected regime, government, or state to reconfigure its multi-country strategy on counter-terrorism to what concerns not only the international community but also its own population. Though Iraq as a country includes distinct communities of Kurds and Sunni Arabs, the Iraqi government can influence them little given that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) rules most of the former, the terror organization “Islamic State” (IS, ISIL, or ISIS) most of latter. While acknowledging the importance of ending sectarianism to Iraq’s stability, this article will focus on the Iraqi government’s relationship with its Shia citizens, who form the majority in Baghdad, Basra, and other cities in the center and south where the Iraqi government has sole authority. This relationship helps explain why domestic and international concerns pushed Iraq further from the American-led coalition known as Operation “Inherent Resolve” and closer to the Iranian-led coalition often known as the “Axis of Resistance” or the “Shia Crescent“.

Sunni volunteers pictured at a graduation ceremony for Iraq's anti-ISIS Popular Mobilization force, near Anbar province's capital Ramadi, June 17, 2015.

Sunni volunteers pictured at a graduation ceremony for Iraq’s anti-ISIS Popular Mobilization force, near Anbar province’s capital Ramadi, June 17, 2015.

America, Britain, and other Western countries have supported the Iraqi government in its efforts to fight terrorism, feeling obliged as its former occupying powers. Fearing an IS takeover of Baghdad, the Iraqi government requested close air support from its Western allies June 18 last year. The air strikes have continued since then, helping the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) defend the Shia-majority regions of Iraq. However, “Inherent Resolve” has seemed to interest the Iraqi government less since US-America first proposed, then demanded that the state shed its sectarian character and improve its relationship with Sunnis by arming them against IS. Iraqi officials remain skeptical and suspicious of this proposal. Their fears worsened when America threatened to bypass the Iraqi government’s authority and arm Sunni tribes whether it approved or not. Western countries pressuring leaders in Baghdad moved those leaders closer to the “Axis of Resistance”, not “Inherent Resolve”, and Iraqi officials looked at the Iranian–Russian–Syrian coalition to the West as a viable alternative to answering Western demands.

Domestic pressures related to Iranian influence helped the Iraqi government decide to shift its focus to international allies. After IS seized Mosul, Tikrit, and other Sunni-majority cities, clerics commanded Shias to join the fight against the terrorist organization. Thousands joined sectarian paramilitaries, some of which had fought American soldiers only several years earlier. A complex conflict evolved: the Iraqi government depended on the Shia paramilitaries, which opposed “Inherent Resolve”, and “Inherent Resolve”, which opposed the paramilitaries. Leaders of the sectarian militias confronted this problem when they complained about American airstrikes during the Battle for Tikrit, claiming that the militiamen could recapture the city without close air support. Meanwhile, many of the paramilitaries included Iranian advisors, officers, and trainers, who helped lead the offensive against IS. In their support of the ISF during the Battle of Tikrit, America and Iran sought to strengthen the Iraqi government’s policy on counter-terrorism, yet cooperating with both created a conflict of interest for the authorities in Baghdad. The Iraqi government would struggle to maintain relationships with two enemies who sought mutually exclusive spheres of influence in Iraq, and the Shia militias, whose dependence on Iran had become obvious, enjoyed popularity among the Shias of Iraq’s center and south. Domestic pressures thus encouraged the Iraqi government to consider a stronger relationship with Iran against IS.

IRAQ-FACTIONS-CDespite continuing to rely on America for many of its resources, the Iraqi government has expanded its options to fight terrorism by considering not only Iran but also Iran’s allies Russia and Syria. In fact, Iran, Iraq, Russia, and Syria have united in a smaller coalition that resembles the one backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his own civil war. An Iraqi official observed that Russia allied itself with the other three countries because of “increased Russian concern about the presence of thousands of terrorists from Russia undertaking criminal acts with” IS. The Iranian–Iraqi–Russian–Syrian alliance formed one operations room in Baghdad and another in Damascus, linking the Syrian Civil War to the Iraqi Civil War and combining their fights against IS. Though Russia represents a great power, Iran a regional power, Iran requested that Russia increase its influence in Iraq and has seemed to lead the coalition. The Iraqi government has since implied that it might request Russian air strikes, meaning that little would distinguish the government-backed Iranian–Russian campaign against IS in Iraq from the one in Syria. This exclusive alliance parallels “Inherent Resolve”, which continues to bomb IS across Syria and Iraq as Russia contemplates the decision of dispersing airstrikes from Syria to Iraq.

Domestic and international pressures have combined to propel the Iraqi government from “Inherent Resolve” to the “Axis of Resistance” or “Shia Crescent”, which, contrary to what America wanted, connotes a sectarian agenda. Spokesmen for the paramilitaries have claimed that Christians, Sunnis, and Yazidis and Kurds and Turkmens have joined them. Even so, the Iraqi government would have difficulty ignoring that Shias far outnumber Iraq’s minorities in the military and the paramilitaries, and their sectarian war crimes discredit the ISF’s goal of amounting to more than an armed union of Shias with competing agendas. Analysts should therefore view the militias’ expansion as a setback for America. When America recommended sending special forces to Iraq to fight IS this December, the Iraqi government responded that it needed no foreign soldiers, echoing the Shia paramilitaries even though, as irony would have it, they fostered dependence on Iranian soldiers. It seems telling that, the month before, American commandos raided IS territory from territory controlled by the KRG, not the Iraqi government, and operated alongside the Peshmerga, not the ISF. Now, the Shia militias and paramilitaries are protesting Turkish soldiers training Sunni Arab fighters against IS in the north of Iraq, suggesting that domestic pressure will continue to affect the Iraqi government’s foreign-relations policy; as irony would have it, the Turkish soldiers were training the Sunni members of the Shia militias and paramilitaries. These protests may relate to Turkey downing a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M near the Syrian–Turkish border last month, for Turkey then interrupted the alliance between the Syrian government and its European supporter, of which Iraq alongside Iran has become part. The Shia militias and paramilitaries seek to defend Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity from Western interventionism but have no problem when Iran and Russia enter Iraq for the sake of counter terrorism.

The Iraqi government’s choice to participate in the Iranian-led coalition may slow IS, but this self-destructive behavior only contributes to the state’s now-sectarian agenda. Sunni Arabs have little to gain from engaging in a state adamant on ignoring America and oppressing them.

More information
Hauke ​​Feickert, “Iraqis argue over war strategy“, offiziere.ch, 04.08.2015.

Shiite militiamen on Thursday in Tikrit. Thousands of Shiites said they would boycott the fight there against the Islamic State (Photo: Khalid Mohammed/AP).

Shiite militiamen on Thursday in Tikrit. Thousands of Shiites said they would boycott the fight there against the Islamic State (Photo: Khalid Mohammed/AP).

This entry was posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, English, International, Iraq, Security Policy.

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