Baghdad wants to join Moscow, Ankara and Tehran in their effort to bring peace to Syria. The Iraqi government has made an official request to include it into the Astana peace process. Russia supports this initiative. It believes the inclusion of Iraq will be an important step forward. The next round of the Astana talks is expected to take place this month. The most recent one was held in December. Moscow invited Baghdad to take part in the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, the inter-Syrian dialogue, held in Sochi on Jan.29-30. Thus, Russia has already made Iraq part of the multi-party effort.
At first, Iraq could be granted an observer status at Astana on par with the UN, the US and Jordan. Expanding the format by bringing in pertinent regional actors involved in Syria is the right step forward. After all, Syria and Iraq have the same enemy: the Islamic State (IS). They share a common border. Both nations face the threat of partition and are ready to go to any lengths to preserve their territorial integrity. The Iraqi leadership understands well the problems faced by Syria.
Iraq is trying to implement independent foreign policy as a big regional power. It is friendly with Iran. Tehran enjoys significant influence among Iraqi Shiites but it does not hinder Baghdad’s efforts aimed at diversifying its foreign relations. The Iraqi Shiite community is not exactly pro-Iranian as many people believe. It is far from being united as to its loyalty to Tehran. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, objects to the politicization of religion and does not approve the idea of spiritual leaders’ involvement in politics. His 2014 fatwa called on the citizens of all religions to unite against the Islamic State. True, the 120,000 strong Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia is dominated by Shiites but they also include significant numbers of Sunni Muslim, Christian and Yazidi soldiers. The force reports to the Iraqi government. The Iraqi Army is normally supervised by Sunni ministers.
Iraq’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is thriving. The ties with Egypt and Jordan are improving. There has been progress in Iraq’s relations with Turkey. With the IS on the ropes, Iraq will concentrate on reconstruction to become an influential regional power.
Russia and Iraq have perfect relations. They are discussing the prospects of establishing a direct airline between the capitals and visa-free regime for diplomats.
Russian weapons were effectively used in the fight against the Islamic State group. The joint intelligence exchange center in Baghdad is a good example of cooperation. Last summer, the two countries signed a huge arms deal covering deliveries of T-90 tanks. This contract reportedly exceeds $1billion. Russian-made Sukhoi Su-25 jets have played an important role in the war against IS terrorists.
Last July, Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Vice-President, visited Russia to say the Iraqi government welcomed Moscow’s substantial political and military presence in the country. A high-level Russian business delegation is taking part in a conference on Iraq’s post-war reconstruction held in Kuwait on Feb. 12-14. An Iraqi team headed by Foreign Minister Ibrahim Jaafari is coming to Russia this month to take part in the meeting of Russian-Iraqi intergovernmental commission. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said the next round of Astana talks is expected soon. There should be no procrastination in order not to lose the positive impulse given by the Syrian National Dialogue meeting held in Sochi. Moscow invited Iraq to participate.
New de-escalation zones are on the agenda of the Astana talks. No peace in Syria can be reached without some kind of agreement to make it secure. True, the peace in that country is in jeopardy today after the US missile and artillery strikes on Syrian targets in Deir ez-Zor, Israeli airstrikes in the south and the continuing fighting in Afrin and Idlib. Despite that, the de-escalation concept has proven to be effective. Violations do take place off and on but it works. It is much better than the ferocious free-for-all Syria had been without them. If peace effort is to proceed, some kind of de-escalation zones will be agreed on at Syria-Iraq border. It is not possible without Iraq’s participation. Baghdad is a pertinent actor many issues cannot be solved without. No doubt, Iraq joining the Astana talks will be a very positive step forward.