The policy conundrum of the moment here is how to react to Russia’s intervention in Syria. Many policy makers and pundits bemoan the lack of an earlier and tougher American presence there and conclude that the opportunity to marginalize Russia’s role has passed.
What has caught less attention is Russia’s evident intent to expand its influence further — into Iraq. The United States can still try to prevent that, through both political and military intervention. But time is short.
Early last month, the United States made clear that it did not want Iraq to open its airspace to Russian flights transporting military equipment and personnel to Syria, but the Iraqis ignored the request. Two weeks ago, Iraq’s Defense Ministry signed an intelligence and security cooperation pact with Russia, Iran and Syria — an agreement that could presage a non-Western coalition in the Middle East with Russia at its helm. At one point, frustrated by the tepid pace of American engagement with Iraq’s own troubles fighting Islamic State, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he would even be open to allowing Russian airstrikes in Iraq.
Then, last week, Iraqi officials reacted with surprise and concern when the Russians fired cruise missiles through Iraqi airspace into Syria.
The first task for America is to persuade Mr. Abadi that permitting any Russian role in or over Iraq would be a terrible mistake. Mr. Abadi is pledged to reconciling the interests of Iraq’s Sunni minority with those of its Shiite majority, in order to unify Iraq in its own fight against the Islamic State. A Russian entry into Iraq would only strengthen Iraq’s most sectarian Shiite politicians and militias, whom Iraq’s Sunnis fear because of their alignment with Iran and their record of suppressing Sunni participation in Iraqi politics.
In addition, Russia backs Syria’s dynastic Assad dictatorship, which has brutally suppressed Syria’s majority Sunnis for decades. Unlike the West, the Russians make no distinctions between President Bashar al-Assad’s moderate Sunni opponents, whose pluralistic instincts find support in Washington, and the Islamic State extremists whom both Russia and America oppose. Russia’s behavior in Syria has therefore made Russia widely despised among Iraq’s Sunnis.
While many Iraqis share Mr. Abadi’s frustration with the slow pace of American military efforts in Iraq, there are reasons for caution. The United States realizes that winning this war requires more than killing terrorists; it requires persuading the Sunni communities now living under the Islamic State that they should ally with the government. So American forces have reached out to Sunni tribal leaders, emphasized careful targeting in airstrikes and sought to marginalize Shiite-dominated militias in Sunni areas.
Russia can be expected to have no such nuance in a strategy to defeat the Islamic State. It is likely to favor indiscriminate air power, as it has in Syria, and to turn a blind eye to abuses inflicted by Shiite militias on Sunni civilians. So a thoughtless Russian intervention could prove a disaster for Iraq by undermining the political processes needed to replace war with a durable peace.
The Abadi government’s willingness to explore cooperation with Iraq’s reasonable Sunnis is the single remaining hope for maintaining and stabilizing a unified Iraq, and the United States’ top priority should be ensuring this government’s survival. To do that, Washington needs to produce not only a more effective military strategy in Iraq, but also substantial political and financial aid for the Abadi government.
Mr. Abadi’s first political need is to bolster popular support among Shiites; he has an ambitious program of reforms, but he needs to better deliver basic public services. This has been a struggle in the face of plummeting oil revenues and escalating costs in the anti-Islamic State war.
When the United States last defeated violent extremists in Iraq, in 2007, it was offering Iraq $2.1 billion a year in bilateral assistance — about six times the measly $355 million requested for fiscal year 2016. And the Abadi government must now contend not just with a war, but with a faltering electricity grid, a cholera outbreak and public doubts about Mr. Abadi’s ability to lead.
His government has already been weakened by months of popular protests that hard-line Shiite militias and political parties have tried to capitalize on. The protests focus on Iraq’s chronic corruption and the abysmal state of its public services.
Fortunately, Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, the moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has supported Mr. Abadi’s reforms and warned protesters that hard-liners were seeking to hijack their movement. That has fed a shift in the protests, which now largely focus on encouraging Mr. Abadi to expand his reforms.
An initial package, approved by the Iraqi Parliament on Aug. 11, included reducing bloated compensation of senior Iraqi ministers, abolishing symbolic government posts and replacing sectarian hiring practices with meritocratic ones. On Aug. 27, a long-delayed law clarifying the role of political parties was adopted.
But there have been limits to what Mr. Abadi could achieve.
While the new law finally forbade Iraqi political parties from associating with armed groups or foreign states, it also prevented anyone who was a Baath Party member under Saddam Hussein from forming a political party. Iraqi Sunnis say such “de-Baathification” laws unfairly disqualify Sunnis whose low-level party membership involved no complicity with Mr. Hussein’s crimes.
Similarly, Mr. Abadi’s effort to create a nonsectarian National Guard has repeatedly been sidelined by hard-line Shiite members of Parliament who won’t let it come to a vote.
If the United States fails to support Mr. Abadi now, it risks seeing him replaced by hard-liners who would further entrench the sectarianism that sustains the Islamic State. And it would condemn Americans to more years of expensive counterterrorism in Iraq — a state already tempted to draw closer to the orbits of Iran and Russia.
But by bolstering moderates and reformists in Iraq’s Shiite political class, the United States could lay the foundations for a lasting peace among Iraq’s disparate communities, shaping that country as a constructive force for pluralism within a regional community that desperately needs one.
Nussaibah Younis is a senior resident fellow at The Atlantic Council and author of the forthcoming Invasion to ISIS: Iraq, State Weakness and Foreign Policy.