'It's classic Putin': Russia's big move in the Middle East goes beyond Syria

Russian, Syrian, and Iranian military advisors are building a coordination cell in Baghdad in an effort to bolster the Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting the Islamic State in northern Iraq, Western intelligence sources told Fox News.

The move comes as Russia builds up its military presence in Syria and raises questions about what role, if any, Russian president Vladimir Putin intends to take on in Iraq.

“Moscow’s argument in the case of Syria” — that Russian support is to counter terrorism — “could also be valid in the case of Iraq,” the Orient Advisory Group wrote in its weekly Middle East Briefing.

“Baghdad can also ‘invite’ the Russians to fight ISIL there,” the note continues, using an alternative name for Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh).

“The Russians can say then that they thought that there is a need for a wider coalition to fight what they see as a national security threat.”

Moscow got this ball rolling in May when Putin met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to discuss weapons transfers and intelligence sharing to quell ISIS’ presence in Iraq and stop its advance towards Baghdad.

Iranian Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani — who has been operating in Iraq for years and recently travelled to Moscow — met with the militias (and, intelligence officials believe, with Russian military advisors) in Baghdad on Tuesday.

Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, thinks the coordination between Russia and Iran in Iraq is “perfectly sensible.”

“The Russians have to work with Iran inside Iraq in order to use Iraq’s airspace to transport weapons and refuel planes en route to Syria,” Badran told Business Insider.

“And Russia is of course trying to leverage the entire intervention as a way to lap up as much real estate in the Middle East as possible,” Badran added. “It’s classic Putin.”

On Monday, a US official told the Wall Street Journal that the Russian buildup in western Syria is being coordinated with the Iranians. Reports have emerged that the Russians are now using an airbase in Hamadan, Iran, to refuel their cargo planes and fighter jets en route to Syria.

And if Russia’s ultimate aim in Syria is to establish a foothold from which to project power in the region — and to challenge America’s influence in the region — it is not out of the question that Putin would test the waters in Iraq as well.

“Putin is very good at sticking a wet finger in the breeze,” Cliff Kupchan, a Russia and Iran specialist at Eurasia Group, told Business Insider. “He takes a step, looks around, and takes another step. He is a very tactical, rather than a strategic, thinker.”

Even so, Kupchan noted, Iraq may be outside of Russia’s sphere of ambition.

“It’s probable that there is coordination between the two [Russia and Iran], but a military coordination cell sounds like a stretch too far,” said Kupchan, who worked for the State Department under Clinton.

“If anything, though, it’s a good talking point, especially when Russia wants to change the subject on Ukraine.”

In pushing himself to the forefront of an “anti-ISIS coalition” and creating a distraction from Ukraine, Putin has coerced the US into accepting — and potentially embracing — Russia’s role in the conflict.

“It’s hard to argue with a guy who seems to be loading up bombs to drop on ISIS,” Kupchan noted.

Russia also hopes that presenting itself as an anti-ISIS heavyweight in the region will convince the West to roll its back sanctions over Ukraine. Putin is expected to say as much when he addresses the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday.

“An opportunistic pursuit of national interests lies at the heart of Russia’s Middle Eastern strategy,” Yaroslav Trofimov wrote in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week.

“Atop them is the goal of reviving Russia’s economy, dependent on energy exports — and hit by the double whammy of cheap oil and Western economic sanctions imposed after last year’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Whether and how far Putin will go in building a military presence in Iraq remains to be seen. But doing so would likely serve at least one of Russia’s key interests: undermining the US.

“Too often policy analysts debate whether the Kremlin is strategic or merely tactical in its approach to foreign policy. But the answer doesn’t matter,” Eerik-Niiles Kross and Molly K. McKew wrote in Politico this week.

“They don’t need a master plan when one clear strategic objective drives decision-making: make the U.S. the enemy — and make them look weak.”

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