Iraq: Maliki’s Assad Moment

The recently announced sale of fighter-bombers to Iraq by Russia and Belarus marks a turning point in the country’s escalating conflict. On a structural level, the purchase by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s regime reveals the desperation of the Iraqi military, a force perceived by many analysts as being a largely "checkpoint army" that also lacks effective air support. While the Iraqi Security Forces have relied on two Cessna aircraft equipped with Hellfire missiles, the planes do not come close to providing the air power required for an effective combined-arms modern military. Iraqi pilots trained to fly American F-16s still do not have the aircraft they expected to fly at a time when militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their largely Sunni anti-Maliki allies have swept toward Baghdad. On a political level, the near simultaneous announcement of the aircraft purchases with Maliki’s rejection of calls to form a national salvation government sends an ominous sign for the future of Iraq’s conflict – dismissing any possibility of political compromise while increasing the central government’s ability to bomb areas of the country outside of its control.

The Iraqi Prime Minister announced the aircraft purchases in an exclusive interview he gave with BBC Arabic, his first since the ISIS-led onslaught began more than two weeks ago. Maliki was on the offensive from the beginning, stating that the reason for granting the interview was to "correct the picture of BBC" and its coverage of events in Iraq. The Iraqi leader’s combined tones of annoyance and defiance continued throughout the interview, blaming the fall of Mosul on "an operation of betrayal" and stating that the antigovernment advances would not have occurred if the Iraqi military had proper air support. He remarked that he and his government were "deluded" when they signed the contract for American aircraft, the delivery of which has been delayed time and time again. Maliki concluded that the underlying problems were on a structural level – the Iraqi military suffering an imbalance with regard to its Air Force, along with the "betrayal" of some of its officers and men. On a political level, Maliki’s own heavy-handed and alienating policies, unwillingness to compromise, and the brutal reputation of the Iraqi Security Forces were issues beyond the scope of the prime minister’s assessment. Accordingly, seeing the issue mainly in a structural military lens begets a military response. Seeking to expand the coercive firepower of the Iraqi state is the logical extension of such an outlook.

The state of conflict in Iraq over the last several months to the present day is much more militarized than Syria was in 2011, but Maliki’s recent comments and actions could mark a turning point like that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s speech delivered on March 30, 2011. In his first speech since the eruption of major protests and violence earlier that March, rather than offer compromise, make concessions, or admit wrongdoing, Assad’s appearance was characterized by intransigence. He placed the blame on the "great plots that arrived in our region during the past months… The great plots that will drop their assaults against the region without exception, including Arab countries and maybe even beyond them." The Syrian President that day spoke with confidence, contrasting his country with that of the regimes swept away in the optimistic early days of the Arab Spring. Syria was safe due to the "popular consensus" for the ruling regime, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt where the people had been sidelined for decades. Assad blamed "conspirators" and "foreign powers" for instigating unrest in Syria, along with media outlets for spreading misinformation. Like Maliki today, responsibility for the state of affairs was with anyone other than the head of state himself. The military option in turn begot the military response.

More than three years later, with much of Syria in ruins and more refugees displaced from it than any country in the world, Assad’s planes are still dropping bombs. The repression option eventually succeeded in clearing protesters from the streets of Syria’s cities, but it also led to an all-out conflict. When the ensuing contagion of war merged with the remnants of the radical Islamist insurgency in Iraq and popular Sunni dissatisfaction with the policies of Prime Minister Maliki perceived as highly sectarian, the result has been a trans-national insurgency that is weakening and threatening the collapse of the state in both countries. A trans-national insurgency has been followed with a trans-national regime response, coordinated or uncoordinated, when Syrian aircraft recently bombed targets inside Iraq. Maliki "welcomed" the strikes and on the Assad regime becoming his regime’s Air Force in areas beyond its control, the prime minister continued, "They carry out their strikes and we carry out ours and the final winners are our two countries."

In the sense that the transformation of Syria’s revolution to a civil war in 2011 and 2012 partially resembled a fast-forward replay of the sectarian conflict that erupted in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, events in Iraq this June and over the last several months have in turn resembled an even faster-paced version of the conflict devastating Syria over the past three years. In Syria, it took more than a year of regime repression before the conflict moved in force to the two largest cities of Aleppo and Damascus. In Iraq, Maliki’s decision to crush the Anbar protest movement by force in December 2013 led almost immediately to the fall of Fallujah to ISIS, Sunni militants, and Anbar antigovernment tribal militias, along with opposition advances that took much of Ramadi in January 2014.

The fall of Mosul and drive toward Baghdad five months later highlighted both the unpopularity of Maliki’s regime and the dire position of the Iraqi military. Much like the Syrian military that gradually introduced tanks, artillery, missiles, and airstrikes while besieging rebellious urban centers, there are striking similarities on the ground in Iraq. The independent Iraqi press has reported pleas by civilians that the military not indiscriminately shell populated areas and in a grim image that has come to be associated with the Assad regime, the inchoate Iraqi Air Force has reportedly been using barrel bombs in urban areas. While the Syrian regime was more overtly brutal from the beginning in terms of ordering its forces to deliberately fire on civilians, the reliance on ranged-fire from airstrikes, artillery, and mortars reveals shared traits between the Iraqi and Syrian militaries – they are both overstretched fighting on many fronts and often incapable of effectively retaking territory through conventional ground attacks. It also likely highlights a shared regime mentality that considers the sacrifice of men entailed by operations that reduce collateral damage to civilians as a greater loss than civilians killed by indirect fire. History may not repeat itself, but regimes at war with large segments of the populations they rule have often turned to similar tactics. Despite being the better part of a century since the British first relied on air power to suppress the restive tribes of Iraq and the French leveled rebellious Syrian cities with concentrated artillery fire, the Iraqi and Syrian states aim to grind down their enemies with not dissimilar tactics. Echoes of Hafaz al-Assad and Saddam Hussein can clearly be heard in the present as well, along with the more recent use of aerial bombing by the United States in Iraq throughout the occupation.

Maliki’s recourse to buying Russian aircraft inevitably invokes the images of Russian-made Syrian aircraft striking the country’s cities since the summer of 2012. The timing of the sale is fitting in that the regional patron of both the Assad and Maliki regimes, Iran, is undoubtedly helping to coordinate Maliki’s war, as it has been helping Assad fight his own. Reports of the deployment of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and aircraft in Iraq, along with the readying of ten divisions of Iranian forces on the Iran-Iraq border conveys Tehran’s willingness to match and likely exceed in Iraq their level of direct involvement in Syria. Included in this would be the return of part of Saddam Hussein’s old air force ordered to Iran in 1991, the flying remnants of which could be piloted by Iranian personnel. The essential difference of course between the Iraqi and Syrian theaters is that the United States will be working on the same side as Iran in backing Maliki and the Iraqi Security Forces, whether or not they communicate with their Iranian counterparts on the ground in Iraq.

Lastly, the coming addition of Russian aircraft to Iraq’s arsenal raises a number of practical concerns. The official announcement posted on the Russian Ministry of Defense website detailed the sale of six Su-30 multipurpose aircraft, along with further Iraqi interest in purchasing MIG-29 aircraft and MI-24 helicopter gunships. In the interview with BBC Arabic, Maliki stated, "God willing within one week this force will be effective and we will destroy the terrorists’ dens." The prime minister did not touch on that the Su-30 is an aircraft that Iraq’s American-trained pilots have not flown. However, it is impossible to say whether Maliki’s believes his highly optimistic estimates, or they were intended to merely rally his base of support. In any event, it is likely that he and his regime are thinking beyond days and weeks. Sadly, if Syria is any indication for the future of Iraq, the Maliki regime is almost certainly planning on bombing areas of the country outside of its control for a long time to come.

Michael Brill will be a student in the Master of Arts in Arab Studies program at Georgetown University starting this fall. He spent the last year in the Middle East studying Arabic in the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) program, having also spent previous summers studying in Jordan and Oman.