The visit of the Iraqi Prime Minister to Russia – and the announcement of a huge arms deal acquired by Baghdad from Moscow – poses a lot of questions and merits serious contemplation. Here we must take into account the strategic options available, the timing of the deal, and the game of balances in the region, especially regarding what is happening in Syria.
Clearly Mr. Nouri al-Maliki is trying to liaise with several incompatible forces at the same time, through alliances with Tehran, Washington and Moscow. No one has ever succeeded in doing this in our region because it is ultimately more trouble than it is worth. It is suffice to recall how the Turkish Foreign Minister’s “zero problems” approach has failed, whereby Ankara now finds itself submerged in the region’s problems. This is not because of Turkish politics, but because the problems of the region will follow you even if you decide to ignore them, and they will overwhelm you if you can only deal with them in a fragile manner. Hence, we see the dangerous repercussions of al-Maliki’s visit to Moscow and his announcement of a huge military deal. The full reconstruction of the Iraqi army, for example, will not be achieved by buying Russian arms, especially since there is already a US program underway to complete this. It is normal, politically speaking, in the case of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, for there to be an integrated process of arming the Iraqi forces via both American and European weapons. There might even be Russian involvement, but not to the tune of more than $4 billion! Iraq today is not supposed to be an isolated regime, and it is known that in our region the biggest customers of Russian weaponry are either isolated Arab regimes, or those that want to undermine America and Europe in search of a political exchange.
This leads us to the following: If Iraq wants to be an active member of the Arab world, and a supporter of democracy and stability, then why the deal now with Moscow, which has disabled all solutions to the Syrian crisis through the Security Council, especially as al-Maliki claims that he supports neither al-Assad nor the Syrian opposition? Why the military deal now with Moscow when it is better for Iraq politically to strike a deal with America or Europe, especially with the financial situation in the West, not to mention the US presidential elections? All this tells us that al-Maliki wants to be a substitute for al-Assad, and he is presently reassuring Moscow that there are still those in the region who will buy Russian weapons.
Iraq is doing what it is doing simply to provide the Russians with an alternative to the al-Assad regime that does not carry the political baggage of what is happening to the unarmed Syrians, and is not isolated in the Arab world. This shows that al-Maliki wants to take the place of al-Assad in the region, but in an amended – or shall we say – distorted version. Otherwise why else would al-Maliki try to liaise with Tehran, Washington and Moscow, and still hope to have special relations with his Arab neighbors?
When I say that al-Maliki wants to be a substitute for al-Assad in the region, it is worthwhile to note the volume of Iraqi statements about the need for Iraqi openness with Moscow in order to “combat terrorism”, and this in itself is akin to an alarm bell. Russia has been repeating the phrase “combat terrorism” since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, whilst limiting its definition of “terrorism” to the Sunnis. Now the al-Maliki government is talking about cooperating with the Russians in order to “combat terrorism”. Does this matter require a great deal of thought to realize that al-Maliki wants to be a substitute for al-Assad in the region, to become the new protector of minorities and the successor to his slogans?