×

Why is Iraq ignoring US concerns about Russia?

Iraq has been turning a blind eye to all the Russian transport planes flying over its airspace, delivering weapons to Syria, despite U.S. objections.

Armed masked man in Syria
Abo Shuja | AFP | Getty Images
Armed masked man in Syria

Russia is using the Syrian conflict to demonstrate its importance on the world stage, and to erode U.S. attempts at isolating Russia after its land grab last year in Crimea.

Russia, which has repeatedly expressed its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, admits to transferring T-90 tanks, howitzers, and armored personnel carriers. "There were military supplies, they are ongoing, and they will continue," Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Russian journalists.

U.S. spy planes have monitored the construction of a forward operations air base in Latakia, near Assad's ancestral home on Syria's Mediterranean coast. Construction of the airfield started last month.


Russia has said that it is there to help fight ISIS in Syria, and indeed, began airstrikes on ISIS targets on Wednesday. However, expansion of the Latakia base is a dangerous development. Not only will the base serve as a major supply station for Syria's armed forces and as a staging ground for war planes supporting Syrian ground operations. It also gives Russia a significant military foothold in the Middle East.

Russia cannot deliver weapons to Syria without Iraq's acquiescence. Huge Russian condor transport planes use an air corridor over Iran and Iraq to transport weapons and personnel. U.S. officials have asked Iraq to prevent the overflight of Russian military transports when they met on Sept. 5. However, their entreaties were ignored.

Iraq's Shiite-led government appears to be more loyal to Iran than the United States. Iran's Quds Force is fighting alongside Shiite militias against the Islamic State in Anbar and other western provinces of Iraq. Iran's political support and security assistance are critical for the survival of Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government.


Further demonstration of Iraq's non-cooperation with the United States surfaced over the weekend: Iraq has reached an understanding with Russia, Iran and Syria to share intelligence about the Islamic State. Iraqi officials kept Washington in the dark during negotiations.

The Obama administration should be able to influence the government of Iraq. Washington supported Abadi's bid to become prime minister. The Pentagon has an extensive equip-and-train program bolstering the Iraqi Security Forces. Between 2005 and 2013, the U.S. spent $25 billion on security assistance to Iraq. U.S.troops were indispensable in toppling Saddam Hussein, which created conditions for Shiites to ascend in Iraq.

U.S. officials must make clear the high cost to Iraq if it fails to close its air space and enforce a ban on Russian overflights. More than expressions of concern, coercive diplomacy is called for. Washington's continued support for Iraq should depend on Baghdad's cooperation as an ally. If Baghdad continues its non-cooperation, the U.S. should directly arm the Kurds to more effectively fight ISIS, and reconsider its opposition to a referendum on independence by Iraqi Kurdistan.


Commentary by David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign- affairs experts to the State Department. His new book is "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East."