Report

Iraq Strikes Intel Sharing Agreement With Russia, Syria, and Iran

The move comes as Russia has deployed large numbers of troops to Syria and has reasserted its diplomatic power in the Middle East.

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With Russia expanding its military presence in Syria in an effort to secure the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, authorities in Baghdad announced Sunday that they have struck an intelligence sharing agreement with Russia, Syria, and Iran to better fight the Islamic State militant group.

The move formalizes what had been a de facto alliance between the three nations as they jointly work to combat the Islamic State — and take the fight to the enemy in a way Washington has been unwilling to do.

Moscow and Iran have mobilized considerable amounts of military and financial resources in support of both Assad and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. The Syrian strongman has maintained his shaky grip on power largely because Tehran has been funneling in billions of dollars of aid and ordered the deployment of hundreds of Hezbollah militiamen. Iran has provided similar levels of support to Baghdad as it fights to reclaim territory from the Islamic State.

Russia, for its part, has been steadily ramping up its support for Assad, the head of a state that hosts its largest military installation in the Middle East. U.S. officials say Moscow has deployed drones, airplanes, and helicopters to newly-expanded bases inside Syria and expect Russia to soon begin an air campaign against the Islamic State.

The moves pose a strategic dilemma for the Obama administration, which has to decide between trying to take steps to minimize Russian and Iranian support for Assad or tacitly endorse it in the hopes that the two countries could have more success battling ISIS than the U.S.-led coalition. More practically, the Pentagon will have to find ways of ensuring U.S. and Russian aircraft coordinate their strikes and avoid potentially dangerous activities in the same regions. 

The Iraqi move comes amid intense diplomatic activity ahead of this week’s opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where American President Barack Obama will meet on the sidelines with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. It will be the first meeting between the two men since relations between Russia and the United States soured over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

After a sustained effort by Washington to isolate Putin, the White House has been forced to re-evaluate its relationship with Russia because of its recent actions in Syria. Russian troops have reinforced a naval base in Assad’s historic base of support, Latakia province, and that military intervention has greatly increased Moscow’s leverage in the region and over the final outcome of the four-year-old civil war there. By transporting troops, planes, and weaponry to the country, Russia has sent a strong signal that it intends to ensure Assad does not fall from power — and to bolster his fight against ISIS and the rebels working to unseat him.

While U.S. officials have publicly objected to the Russian military build-up in Syria, they haven’t stopped it, and privately some officials say it could, in the short-term, help rein in the Islamic State.

In a statement from Baghdad, the Iraqi military’s joint operations command said that the intelligence agreement had been struck “with increased Russian concern about the presence of thousands of terrorists from Russia undertaking criminal acts with Daesh,” another name for the Islamic State.

According to Russian media reports cited by the Financial Times, the intelligence sharing center, to be based in Baghdad, will be led on a rotating basis by officers from the four participating countries. Officers at the center will share and analyze intelligence and then pass it on to their respective troops. The details of how the center will operate have not been confirmed. The Iraqi embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment Sunday.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reacted cautiously to the report. “I think the critical thing is that all of the efforts need to be coordinated. This is not yet coordinated. I think we have concerns about how we’re going to go forward, but that’s precisely what we’re meeting on to talk about now,” the top American diplomat said in New York Sunday, appearing before reporters next to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. “Our presidents will be meeting tomorrow. This is the beginning of a genuine effort to see if there is a way to de-conflict, but also to find a way forward that will be effective in keeping a united, secular Syria that can be at peace and stable again without foreign troops present, and that’s our hope.”

According to a senior State Department official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, the meeting between Kerry and Lavrov was dominated by discussion of Ukraine and Syria and was in preparation of talks between Obama and Putin scheduled for Monday. The two foreign ministers discussed how to avoid an accidental confrontation between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria and how “to get back to the conversation about a way forward on a political transition.” 

“We’re just at the beginning of trying to understand what the Russians’ intentions are in Syria, in Iraq, and to try to see if there are mutually beneficial ways forward here,” the official said. “We’ve got a long way to go in that conversation.”

At this week’s U.N. meetings in New York, Putin is expected to put forward a proposal to end the Syrian civil war by arguing that world powers should unite around Assad to defeat the Islamic State. The Russian diplomatic gambit, viewed with deep skepticism in Western capitals, could offer a way out for Putin from his long diplomatic isolation caused by the crisis in Ukraine. There is some evidence that this week may contain a diplomatic opening for Putin. Multiple reports in the British press Sunday indicated that the Cameron government is increasingly open to letting Assad remain in power as part of a transitional government.

In an interview with the American journalist Charlie Rose, Putin ridiculed the failure of the United States to train a rebel force to fight the Islamic State to describe himself and Assad as the players that really matter in ending the conflict. “There is only one regular army there. That is the army of Syrian President al-Assad,” Putin said, according to a partial transcript released by the Kremlin. “The initial aim was to train between 5,000 and 6,000 fighters, and then 12,000 more. It turns out that only 60 of these fighters have been properly trained, and as few as 4 or 5 people actually carry weapons, while the rest of them have deserted with the American weapons to join ISIS. That is the first point,” Putin added, referring to the American effort to stand up a moderate rebel force.

But even as Russia has increased its diplomatic influence through its intervention in Syria, Moscow’s exact military ambitions there remain unclear. Recent reports indicate that its planes and drones there have been scouting possible targets, raising the possibility that Russia may provide air support for forces loyal to the Assad regime.

With air forces from a large number of countries operating in the skies over Syria, recent weeks have seen a flurry of activity to ensure that Russia’s moves in Syria do not result in an accidental confrontation between Russian planes and other jets, including U.S. bombers and fighters hitting Islamic State targets. The U.S. and Russian militaries are now engaged in talks to ensure that their forces do not open fire on one another and risk a major escalation of the war in Syria.

Israel and Russia have also set up a coordination mechanism to ensure that their troops do not fire on one another. Over the course of the Syrian civil war, Israel has carried out several airstrikes in Syria to prevent what the Israeli military has described as the transfer of advanced weaponry, including powerful rockets, to the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon. Hezbollah has dispatched large numbers of its fighters to reinforce the Assad regime.

The skies over Syria are only getting more crowded, as President Francois Hollande of France announced Sunday that his country had expanded its aerial campaign against the Islamic State into Syria. The same day, French jets struck and destroyed an Islamic State training camp there.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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