Why Putin Might Extend Russia's anti-ISIS Operations to Iraq

On October 6, 2015, Federation Council Chairman Valentina Matviyenko declared that Russia would launch airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, if the Iraqi government gave Russia the green light to intervene. As the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and Iraqi Shiite leaders have both called for Russian participation in Iraq's anti-ISIS struggle, Matviyenko's statement is a major step towards launching a two-front war against the terrorist organization.

Even though delving into a seemingly interminable conflict is a risky endeavor, Russia would benefit greatly from expanding what it refers to as its anti-ISIS efforts to Iraq. Russia will be able to achieve its objectives in Iraq at a considerably lower financial cost than in Syria, due to a like-minded Western presence and established command-and-control networks. It will also be able to use an anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq, to underscore its counter-terrorism credentials to the international community and co-opt other Middle Eastern countries into supporting its grand strategy.

Four Reasons why a Russian anti-ISIS Campaign in Iraq is Cost-Effective

Even though Russian military resources have been arguably stretched beyond capacity by recent interventions in Ukraine and Syria, Russia can effectively weaken ISIS by carrying out a high-intensity, low-cost campaign in Iraq. Four major conditions on the ground in Iraq exemplify why Putin has a window of opportunity to intervene right now.

First, Russia could be able to coordinate with the US-led anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq, as Russia and the United States have broadly similar aims. This strategic cooperation would greatly enhance the effectiveness of coalition airstrikes.

Second, Russia's intervention in Iraq would also come at a low financial cost, as it would be able to effectively share the burdens of war with other countries. NATO warplanes have a much larger presence over Iraq's skies than in Syria. Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi government forces will provide Russia with a much deeper base of ground support than in Syria, where Bashar Al-Assad's forces have limited reach.

Third, Russia's command-and-control needs will be greatly bolstered by an information center that has recently been established in Baghdad. This intelligence center consists of Iranian, Syrian, and Iraqi officers. Its personnel will rotate every three months and can coordinate the anti-ISIS campaign even in the absence of Russian airstrikes. The United States has expressed opposition to this intelligence center as it dilutes American influence over Iraq. But the Iraqi government's frustration with the struggling US-led ISIS campaign has forced it to turn to Russian intelligence officials for additional assistance.

Fourth, Iran is also likely to support Russian anti-ISIS efforts in Iraq, as it has a considerable stake in Iraq's security and has cooperated consistently with Putin in Syria. The United States has continuously opposed Iranian arms shipments to Iraq, despite the Iran nuclear deal and Iran's anti-ISIS alignment. But Russian involvement in Iraq could result in an increase in the number of Iranian weapons used against ISIS. This would consolidate a Russia-Iran alliance at time when coordination between them is essential for Assad's survival in Syria.

How a Russian Campaign in Iraq Can Expand the Kremlin's Alliance Network

The implications of an intervention in Iraq on Russia's geopolitical standing are arguably even more significant than those for Russia's security. Putin, by extending Russia's mission to Iraq, will be able to unequivocally demonstrate his commitment to vanquishing ISIS. By reiterating that objective, Putin would also be able to counter Western criticisms that helping Assad cling to power is more important to his Syria campaign than cracking down on ISIS.

Moving beyond the security dimension, a Russian military intervention against ISIS in Iraq will cement its status as an indispensable player in the Middle East. Russia's lack of reliable allies in the Arab world has often been cited as a reason for its long-standing loyalty to the Assad regime in Syria. But Russia now has a golden opportunity to build a durable strategic partnership with Iraq.

Cooperation between Russia and Iraq is premised on solidarity forged during the last days of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, told me in a recent interview, that the 2003 Iraq War has powerful symbolic significance for Vladimir Putin as it highlighted US foreign policy's severe double standards. Putin's history of standing up for Iraqi sovereignty, will prevent Russia from being undermined by the accusations of reckless hegemony that have weakened the United States' credibility in the region.

If Russia can successfully improve Iraq's security situation through airstrikes, it could gain many new allies in the Middle East. Russia's diplomatic ties with Egypt and Israel have already strengthened as a result of Putin's intervention in Syria. Cooperation between these countries could extend to intelligence sharing against ISIS and an expansion of trade linkages, especially in the defense sector.

If these deals are to deepen further, Russia needs to prove beyond doubt that its pro-Assad, anti-ISIS efforts in Syria are effective in combatting the Islamic State. Russia will have to demonstrate that its airstrikes both are materially weakening the terror organization and have a powerful enough deterrent effect to prevent ISIS from being emboldened by new recruits who disdain Russian conduct. Russia also needs to contain the antagonism amongst Sunnis at home, generated by its support for Assad.

Even though durable success in Syria remains a distant goal, the chairman of Iraq's parliamentary committee, Hakim al-Zamili's, calls for Russian military involvement in Iraq are a vital credibility boost for Putin's campaign. Should this support result in full-fledged Russian military action in Iraq, Arab leaders will be forced to acknowledge that Russia is indispensable as a guarantor of security in the Middle East.