Russia expands influence in Shi’ite crescent
by Sandhya Jain on 03 Jul 2014 7 Comments

In a move that took the sponsors of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by surprise, Moscow quietly rushed Su-25 fighter jets to Iraq and is now helping to shore up the beleaguered regime of Nouri al-Maliki. This unexpected tit-for-tat for the formal division of Ukraine was doubtless worked out in close synergy with Tehran and Damascus, and will give political and military muscle to the anti-US regimes of the turbulent Shi’ite crescent. Russia enjoys good relations with Syria and Iran, whose Shi’ite regimes are also under Western pressure, and where turmoil easily spills across borders. Fast changing developments in the region, meanwhile, pose a challenge to the Saudi sponsors of ISIS and are prompting Washington to rethink the merits of a fragmented Iraq.


The Russian aid comes close on the heels of President Vladimir Putin expressing “full support” for Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki’s efforts to answer the challenge from the ISIS fighters who have pushed the Iraqi military out of several cities and towns in the northern and western parts of the country. Sending officers to help the Iraqi air force puts Moscow on the ground in Baghdad, in close proximity to Syria, where Western-sponsored rebels fighting for regime change pose a danger to Russia’s sole naval base in the Mediterranean.


Russia has important security, economic and political interests in the broader Middle East that lies on its periphery, a region the British Empire always sought to insulate from Moscow’s influence. It also has considerable stake in Iraq’s oil sector, particularly the huge West Qurna-2 oilfield.


Although Russia was quiet during the American invasion of Iraq, including the occupation and brutal murder of Saddam Hussein, the Saudi-Qatar-Kuwait backed Sunni jihadis who enjoy thinly veiled support from the Obama White House, now threaten the stability of the entire region. Unsurprisingly, Chechen rebels rank among foreign nationals fighting in the Iraqi and Syrian insurgencies. As such, Moscow could not be expected to stay out of the region, and was clearly looking for an opening.


The timely military aid is a sharp snub to the United States which failed to help al-Maliki to secure the US F-16 warplanes and Apache helicopter gunships he had contracted to buy, and also rebuffed his plea for air cover against the militants. The Russian planes (a total 25 have been promised), arrived in crates in a cargo plane and hence escaped detection in transit! They were accompanied by experts who will put them together and are expected to be operational within a few days. Iraqi pilots have used the Su-25 extensively during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and can easily brush up their skills.


Washington, which denied delay in delivering the fighters, has now agreed to give Baghdad first two F-16s and six Apaches in September or October; but it will take months to train the Apache pilots. Washington had delayed delivery on grounds that the regime could misuse the force against its political opponents, and was pressurising al-Maliki to accommodate the Sunni population in the power hierarchy.


Iraq has been desperate since the loss of Kirkuk to the Kurds and most of the northern and eastern Sunni areas to the Sunni Islamist forces. Now, under a $4.3 billion arms deal signed in 2012, Moscow plans to supply over 10 fully armed and equipped Mi-28 NE Night Hunter attack helicopters to Iraq. The deal includes pilot and technical personnel training and the delivery of essential weapons systems.


Geostrategic expert William Engdahl notes that it is no surprise that the ISIS is funded by three of the closest US allies in the Sunni world, viz., Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It has since emerged that key ISIS members were trained by US CIA and Special Forces command, and Turkish and Jordanian intelligence, at a secret camp in the Jordanian town of Safawi, near the borders of both Syria and Iraq, in 2012. This information is now being leaked by Jordanian Government officials who fear that the ISIS terrorists will soon turn their swords towards Jordan’s King Abdullah. A former US State Department official Andrew Doran claims (National Review magazine) that some ISIS fighters hold US passports.


Iranian journalist Sabah Zanganeh points out that the ISIS could not have taken over Mosul (June 10) by itself, but was covertly supported by the security-intelligence set ups of some regional countries along with extremist groups inside the Iraqi government. The jihadi believed to be the ‘military mastermind’ behind recent ISIS victories, Tarkhan Batirashvili (Arab name Emir Umar al Shishani), is an ethnic Chechen from the Chechen border near Georgia. He is an important cog in the geopolitical struggle between the US and Russia. Observers recall that the CIA pushed hundreds of Saudis and other foreign mujahidin of the 1980s war against the Soviets into Chechnya to disrupt Russia in the early 1990s, and specifically to sabotage the Russian oil pipeline from Baku on the Caspian Sea into Russia.


The breakup of Iraq and an independent Kurdish Republic will serve the interests of America in Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Since the fall of Mosul, some of the world’s largest oilfields in Iraq have fallen into the hands of jihadists who are enriching themselves through the sale of the oil through Turkey and Israel.


On June 28, the first day of the month of Ramzan, an ISIS spokesman proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as world caliph, Caliph Ibrahim, (that is, Abraham, the first prophet) and said all other jihadi organizations were under his direct control, a claim that shows that the groups ambitions are no longer confined to Iraq or Syria, and will extend to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey. In fact, the spokesman said that the new Islamic State (no longer dubbed ISIS) “invalidates the legitimacy of all other Islamic emirates”, which is naturally causing alarm in the Muslim world.


On June 30, the new Islamic caliphate raised its flag in the Syrian town of Tell Abyad, just across the border from Akcakale, Turkey, after being removed just two weeks ago in a see-saw with the Free Syrian Army. The Turkish Government has promised to protect the tomb of Suleiman Shah which lies 35 kilometers outside the Turkish border inside Syria, which is endangered by the iconoclasm of the new caliphate that is threatening to flatten the Kaaba, the most powerful symbol of the Islamic faith. 


Meanwhile, American intelligence believes Iran is sending surveillance drones over Iraq and offering the regime military equipment and support. Baghdad is keen to regain Tikrit (birthplace of Saddam Hussein) from the insurgents and is in control of the roads leading to the city. It has reclaimed the campus of Salahuddin University in Tikrit, along with a military base, Camp Speicher, on the outskirts of the city, and claims to have retaken Ouja, the village in which Saddam Hussein was born.


The fighter jets from Russia are second-hand purchases to fill the gaps in Iraq’s air power during the current emergency, and similar purchases are being sought from Belarus (the deals are worth about $500 million). It is pertinent is that Belarus joined the Eurasian Economic Union with Russia and Kazakhstan on May 29, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is to visit the country on July 2, the 70th anniversary of its liberation from the German invaders. Obviously, President Putin has done some sharp below the radar diplomacy.  

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