On October 13, 2015, IRIS hosted a panel discussion for AUIS students on the implications of Russia's new involvement in the region for Iraq and the KRG.

Panelists included AUIS Professors Dr. Bilal Wahab and Dr. Akeel Abbas, as well as Senior IRIS Fellow Ahmed Ali. The discussion, titled 'A New Cold War? Russian Expansionism and its Implications for Iraq and the Kurdistan Region' attracted many students curious to learn more about this important recent development and explore the matter through a lively discussion with panelists. The event overview was as follows:

Russia has just changed the regional balance of power. It deployed air power and military assets to Syria. It has started an alliance with the federal government of Iraq to reportedly share intelligence in the war against ISIS. These developments represent a direct competition to the United States and have implications for Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). What does the Russian role mean for Iraq and the KRG? What does it mean for the war against ISIS? Are Iraq and the KRG going to be beneficiaries of Russia's new role? What does the new role mean for U.S. Iraq and KRG policy? What will the U.S. Do to counter Russia's aggressive role? Will Russia start playing a role in Iraq's and KRG's political affairs? How will the regional countries react to Russia's new role?

Below is a summary of the main points made by discussion panelists:

Akeel Abbas, AUIS Professor:

To understand the Iraqi perception of the Russian and the American role in the Middle East, it is important to examine the ideological trends that have historically dominated Iraq and the region. The political legacy of the past and various historical narratives of Russia and US influence the current Iraqi view. With Russia’s new role in Syria, there is a revival of the concept on the Iraqi street that the U.S. is not a positive force. This view did not change and perhaps was solidified since the 2003 war. On the other hand, Iraqis have a more favorable view of Russia due to the political education in Iraq. Consequently, some in Iraq view Russia’s new role as a counterbalance to the United States.  

The new Russian role is also affecting Iraqi politics. There have been fissures within the Iraqi political scene about the effectiveness of the U.S. role. In some cases, those fissures were between Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Iraqi Shi’a forces within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), or al-Hashd al-Shaabi. These fissures were marginal, but are now re-emerging due to Russia’s role in Syria.    

Russian forces are not targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Syria. The Russian campaign appears to be mostly targeting forces that oppose Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government. Extremists in the region may also benefit from Russia’s new role in the Middle East. Those forces could portray it as an attack on Islam and use it to consolidate their position in the region.  

Bilal Wahab, AUIS Professor

The new Russian role does not usher in a new Cold War. The overall Russian capabilities do not match those of the United States. This becomes clear in the comparison of the two countries’ military, diplomatic, and economic prowess. Russia appears to be more significant because the U.S. role in the region is small and U.S. foreign policy has changed. The U.S. is used to high-level solutions in its policy. It either deploys large assets or none at all. There is no middle ground. Currently, there is no clear strategy to defeat ISIS. Regionally, the U.S. left a vacuum in Iraq and other countries. The Russian government and media outlets constantly mention that the U.S. has taken these decisions.  

For Iraqi Kurdistan, Russia will be against independence for the region. This is due to Russia’s fears about minorities asking for further rights within its borders. One of the reasons that Russia is intervening in Syria is that it does not want the geopolitical map of the Middle East to shift. It does not want to see countries disintegrate. According to Russian national security analysis, it’s an American agenda to disintegrate the Middle East. This Russian position also relates to its alliance with the Iranian government, which is a strong opponent of an independent Kurdistan. The Russian-Iranian alliance would likely influence internal political dynamics in Iraqi Kurdistan given the geographic proximity to Iran and Turkey which views Russia’s new role with suspicion. In Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan, the PYD may be able to capitalize on the new Russian role in order to unite the different Kurdish parts of Syria.

Finally, political conditions in Iraqi Kurdistan are not most affected by regional and international agendas. The conditions are rather influenced by internal dynamics. However, Iraqi Kurdish political parties are not able to to call the shots.  Thus, the parties have to pursue stability and prosperity in Iraqi Kurdistan instead of taking sides in a conflict they cannot control.

Ahmed Ali, Senior IRIS Fellow

The role of Russia has implications for the United States. It is a negative development for U.S. foreign policy. This is due to the fact that Russia deployed its assets to Syria without regard to the United States and its policy in the Middle East. No power should be able to do this in the region given the U.S. long-term prominence. Therefore, the new Russian role is a direct competition to U.S. interests in the region. President Obama’s administration has yet to forcefully respond to the Russian role. The U.S. has clearly been outflanked by Russia. To counter Russia’s role, the U.S. can start by deploying military assets in the region including aircraft carriers.

The Russian government decided to deploy to the region in order to reassert itself in the Middle East. Furthermore, Russia had to shore up Bashar al-Assad’s government along with its allies, all of whom are facing military challenges on the ground. However, the Russian role is unlikely to be successful. This is due to complex ground dynamics and the multitude of groups that control terrain in Syria. Simply, there are too many agents that the Syrian government has to defeat in order to regain lost territories.   

In the short-term, the government in Baghdad may view the Russian role as an asset. In its view, it is necessary to have a long list of allies to rely on in the war against ISIS. Over the long-term, however, an alliance with Russia would not be beneficial for Iraq. The Russian military does not have the same superior U.S. military capabilities. Strategically, an alliance with the United States is more productive for Baghdad as it can boost Iraq’s international standing. Overall, the U.S. is in a better position to be in a long-term partner for Iraq’s federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government.