By Ollie Richardson
Recent developments in both Syria and Iraq (Al-Qaeda’s heavy defeat in Hama, prisoner exchanges in al-Fu’ah and Kafriya, liberation of most of West Mosul) have pulled the “fight against terrorism”, as the media calls it, into a new direction, where light can be seen at the end of the tunnel, but at the same time it isn’t clear how to approach it.
In general, Russia has managed to once again, after a many-year hiatus, assert its influence in the Middle East. Whether it is by aiding the Syrian Army, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah, or even Turkish troops in Syria from the air, providing logistical and military assistance to the Libyan National Army in Libya, shipping weapons (covertly) and aid (overtly) to the Houthi’s in Yemen, providing assistance to the Egyptian State in the fight versus ISIS militants, sending weapons to Algeria – all these events are interconnected and are part of the longer-term plan of Moscow to curtail the presence of the West in such an important region for the world.
Whilst the aims and objectives of Russia are clearer in the Syria theatre, in the Iraqi theatre they are more complex due to the close cooperation between the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the current US President – the result of the 2003 invasion led by Tony Blair and George Bush Jr. In an interview to Stalker Zone, Al-Rai veteran war correspondent Elijah J. Magnier specified what both the US and Russia’s roles currently are in Iraq, and how this affects the “fight against terrorism”.
You stated last year that the US is unable to come to an agreement with the Iraqi government concerning how Mosul will be governed after its full liberation. In addition, earlier this year you also said that US is unlikely to leave Mosul post-liberation. Has anything changed since you stated this? How do you envisage any possible further US occupation?
“Mosul, like Kirkuk, are part of the many disputed areas in Iraq where Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs live together. There is a real concern regarding the reconstruction of all Sunni cities that suffered from war since ISIS was established in these cities, and therefore Sunnis found their belonging and proprieties destroyed due to ISIS’ presence.
The Iraqi Government is in a financial crisis due to the huge budget invested on warfare. Therefore, the International Bank will be a leverage against the central government in Baghdad, imposing on behalf of the international community what they see as the best way to run the country. Moreover, the Iraqi constitution includes already a channel of power from the central government to provinces. It also includes a referendum in cities, like Kirkuk in this case, in December 2007 (that didn’t take place then). But these provinces can’t survive without an agreement with Baghdad. Therefore, neither Mosul, not Kirkuk or any other province can survive alone without being financed either by Baghdad or by another outsider (like Saudi Arabia for the Anbar for example). At the moment, the central government is struggling with finance but are aware what any foreign investment could mean to the integrity of the country. There is no real plan to solve these issues because the priority is to defeat ISIS. The terrorist group is not defeated yet. It is still in Tel-Afar, Hawija, and the west of Anbar to the Syria borders. therefore the plan for ‘after Mosul’ is a reconstruction but still the long term is not decided yet.”
How would you best summarise the US’ role in Iraq in 2017? What are its aims and objectives? Is the US more of a help or a hindrance in the “fight against terrorism”?
“The US in 2017 is targeting Iraqi oil and a long presence in Iraq. The Trump objective is to stay in the country as long as possible but without necessarily injecting 100,000 men. If the central government in Baghdad rejects the American influence, the US can easily allow or at least close an eye on the Saudi intervention in Iraq (through finance that is most welcome by the population and therefore would earn Saudi Arabia a lot of influence mainly in Anbar province). If the US is guaranteed a long presence and a beneficial one (military training, military sales, oil exploitation to say the least), therefore the US will act as a ‘buffer country’ to regulate the level of Saudi intervention in Iraq. Moreover, there is still the issue of Turkey that is unsolved. The US can also play a positive role or not intervene at all between Baghdad and Ankara regarding the Turkish troops stationed in Ba’shiqa. The US will certainly, if based in Iraq, make sure ISIS won’t grow again by outside donors.”
What prevents Russia from also intervening in Iraq in a similar capacity to its activity in Syria? What role is Russia currently playing in Iraq?
“Russia is based in al-Izdihar camp, maintaining a coordination military intelligence office along with Iran to help defeat ISIS. Russia is also selling weapons to Iraq, much less than the US of course. Nevertheless, the US officials warned the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi indirectly that any Russian significant role in Iraq means we, the Americans, will pull out. For the Iraqi Central Government, pulling out means the return of ISIS and the return of Obama’s policy (closing an eye on ISIS finance and growth). Therefore, Russia can’t do much as long as the danger of ISIS is still present and it is possible to re-energise itself in Iraq.”
What are the prospects for joint Iraqi army-Syrian army collaboration regarding the elimination of terrorists on the border?
“The Iraqi Army can’t join the Syrian Army at the moment unless ISIS remains active in al-qaem and Deir-ezzour. In this case, the Iraqi government can use the excuse of fighting ISIS to prevent it from entering Iraq by pushing it beyond al-qaem until Deir-ezzour at least. If ISIS is eliminated from this bordering area, the Iraqi Army can’t help the Syrian Army. Iraq, once liberated from ISIS (this might take the entire of 2017 at least), can use other means (hitting ISIS by using the Iraqi Air Force occasionally). But once ISIS is defeated in Iraq, many Iraqi armed groups considered as Iranian proxies will be free to join the fight in Syria against not only ISIS but also al-Qaeda, the most dangerous group in Syria.”
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