BAGHDAD — In the last Iraq war, the U.S. military helped beat ISIS’s predecessors with the help of the Sunni tribes. Now, Russia is trying to take a page from the old American playbook, and forge its own tribal alliances.
“Russia is serious in fighting terrorism and wants to finish the war as soon as possible, unlike the U.S.,” Faisal al-Asafi, a Sunni sheikh in Iraq’s Anbar province who opposes ISIS, told The Daily Beast. “Russia has already started bombing the transmission lines of ISIS while the U.S. is watching ISIS fighters moving freely from Syria to Anbar.”
Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that they are seeing early signs of this Russian outreach to Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq, aimed at bolstering the minority sect’s efforts to combat ISIS militants embedded within Sunni communities.
Part of this recent charm offensive is the Kremlin’s offer to provide Sunni tribes with weapons faster than the U.S. has thus far been able to, and to do so unilaterally, bypassing the Shiite-dominated central government entirely. American-provided materiel to the tribes will continue to go through Baghdad, out of respect for Iraq’s sovereignty.
The two U.S. officials say that Russia’s tribal outreach has yet to bear fruit. “It’s in the seduction phase,” one official explained to The Daily Beast.
But these officials suspect it’s part of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing effort to undermine and curtail American influence in the Middle East, particularly when it comes to presenting himself as the more trustworthy and credible ally in counterterrorism.
Rumors have abounded for months, for instance, of Russia’s possible direct military intervention in Iraq, mirrored on its surprise aerial campaign in Syria, which began in October.
That war, ostensibly undertaken to go after ISIS targets, has instead been waged to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s client in Damascus, with the vast majority of Russia’s payload being dropped on non-ISIS targets. This week, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond even accused Moscow of helping ISIS to advance in Syria by targeting anti-Assad rebels who were also at war with the jihadist forces.
Iraq, though, is different. A country invaded and occupied for nearly a decade by the U.S., which also armed and trained its army and police, still has to maintain at least the appearance of loyalty to Washington. Iraqi government spokesman Sa’ad al-Hadithi told The Daily Beast that “Iraq is keen to establish balanced relations with all countries of the world and take advantage of all forms of support provided by any regional or other states regarding the war on terrorism and the challenges facing Iraq in the current war against terrorist group Daesh,” using another, pejorative term for the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS.
Some Iraqi officials and stakeholders, however, believe that Russia is a more honest broker than is the U.S.
“We are cooperating with Russia—as is the case with other countries in the world—in two domains,” Hadithi told The Daily Beast. “The first, armaments, in which we have contracts with Russia. From time to time, they send batches of weapons, ammunition and military supplies on quite a regular basis. The second area that has been agreed upon is the exchange of intelligence within the Quartet, which includes Iran and Syria.” The other two members are Iraq and Russia.
While the Kremlin’s footprint is not particularly visible inside the Green Zone, sources in Baghdad say that Russian military, diplomatic and intelligence officers are present in the three places that count, those most vital to Iraq’s security.
The first is a location close to the Khuld Hall, where the so-called Suqor, or “Hawks,” cell operates. Here, Iraqi spies exchange intelligence with their Russian counterparts, especially any information relating to the senior leaders and commanders of ISIS. The second venue is the National Information Center, run by Lieutenant General Hussein Alasady. The Russians, sources tell The Daily Beast, keep their own major general there as a representative and liaison. Finally, Moscow has a presence within the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers building, which is the nerve center of all of Iraq’s national security operations.
Needless to add, all of these organs are thoroughly penetrated by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is responsible for arming and training the Hashd al-Shaabi and, to a lesser or greater degree, running Iraq’s war. Iran’s state-backed Fars media reported that Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s expeditionary wing, the Quds Force, was in Moscow for three days last week to meet with Vladimir Putin and “and high-ranking Russian military and security officials.” Putin evidently referred to Soleimani, who is rumored to be responsible for rescuing the Russian fighter pilot who parachuted into northwestern Syria after his jet was shot down by the Turkish Air Force last month, as “my friend Qassem.” It was Soleimani, too, who reportedly convinced Putin to intervene directly in Syria on a previous trip to Moscow.
Hakim al-Zamili is commander of the Saraya al-Salam militia within the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units—Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary forces which have been responsible for the bulk of the ground war against ISIS in Iraq. They have also been accused of gross human rights violations against Sunnis—violations which the U.S. government has tried to cover up—expelling ISIS from Iraqi territory. Al-Zamili told The Daily Beast that Russia has sent “light weapons and ammunition for free” to Iraq in exchange for intelligence sharing.
“Iran, Russia, and Iraq are working closely and cooperating,” he said. And this trilateral relationship exists quite comfortably without any outside interference or ancillary partnerships. Russia has also refused to participate in Saudi Arabia’s newly-hatched “Islamic coalition” of nations dedicated to fighting jihadism. Why? “Because Iraq and Iran haven’t participated,” Zamili said.
In addition to his role as a militia leader, Zamili also heads Iraqi Parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, which recently traveled as a delegation to Moscow. A separate senior commander within the Hashd al-Shaabi described that visit for The Daily Beast.
“They talked about forming a joint intelligence operation room in Baghdad and helping the Hashd al-Shaabi on the ground.” Both sides also evidently discussed “putting pressure on the U.S.,” namely by keeping its own military footprint light or non-existent in Iraq. “That’s been clear in statements by Hashd leaders who threatened the U.S. if troops come back to Iraq,” the commander said.
Given this level of Russian penetration in Iraq’s security and military sectors, it was perhaps inevitable that the Kremlin also try to win over the Sunni tribes, long considered by analysts and regional officials to be the sine qua non for any serious campaign against ISIS.
A small number of tribesmen are currently partnering with pro-Iraqi forces, including the Hashd al-Shaabi, in an ongoing and long-delayed operation to liberate Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, which fell to ISIS last summer. As such, Moscow has been courting the Anbari tribes most assiduously.
The Russian embassy in Baghdad is said to be coordinating this outreach program with with Iraq’s National Security Service, the Hashd al-Shaabi, and the National Committee for Implementation and Follow-up of the National Reconciliation, a body dedicated to bringing the country’s parlous factions together.
“The Russians almost always do their reach and issue invitations through a think tank that is Iraqi state-run,” said Mark Alsalih, a Sunni lobbyist in Washington and the president of the Iraq Stability and Security Program, composed of citizens and tribal sheikhs. “They reached out last summer to the president of Peace Ambassadors for Iraq, Sheikh Jamal Aldhari. The sheikh obliged and visited Moscow where he met with former and current Russian officials, mostly to hear what the Russian government’s position and intent is vis-a-vis Iraq.”
Invitations were also recently sent to the Iraqi Revolutionary Tribal Political Council, headed by Sheikh Zaidan Aljaberi, and to the Iraqi Ba’ath Party. “To the best of my knowledge,” Alsalih said, “they have not visited Moscow and the Council issued a statement rejecting Russian intervention in Iraq.”
Indeed, there’s little evidence that Russia’s outreach is working, at least not yet. U.S. officials believe “no major” Sunni tribesman have warmed to proposals of a partnership with the Kremlin.
And while some tribesmen are wary of taking the courtship further, it’s not for any great faithfulness toward Washington. “Russia talks about arming the Sunni tribal forces but this has only been discussed in the media to show its people that they are serious in fighting terrorism,” according to Na’im al-Ka’ud, sheikh of the influential Albu Nimr tribe in Anbar. “The promise they have given is the same promise the U.S. has given before. The tribes from Anbar have been fighting ISIS for two years. The U.S. and some Arabic countries have promised but done nothing, so how can we believe Russia?”
Defenders of the U.S.-led war against ISIS said that it brings resources no other nation can, including hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid and a massive air strike campaign. While the Russians have launched their own aerial assaults, American officials cautioned that Baghdad and the Sunnis should take the long view when it comes to making any deals with Moscow.
As one U.S. official said, “If you get in bed with the Russians, it doesn’t always end well.”
—with additional reporting by Salam Zeidan, Muhammad Rahim, and Emad al-Sharaa in Baghdad.