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A Field Guide to Iraq’s Fighting Factions, Part 4: Odd Men Out — the Russians and the Kurds

Iraq is turning into the UN of proxy wars and sectarian bloodshed, summed up by an unnamed Defense Department analyst as “fucking bonkers.”
Photo by Boris Niehaus

VICE News started by explaining the four teams battling over Iraq: Teams Sunni, Shia, Iraq, and Kurd. Team Sunni and Team Shia are locked in a deadly proxy war, while Team Iraq tries to find itself, and Team Kurd watches from the sidelines.

We then got better acquainted with them in the Field Guide to Iraq’s Fighting Factions. Part 1 looks into Team Sunni, differentiating between the Establishment and Extreme versions. Part 2 examines Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Part 3 investigates the relationships between Iraq, Iran, and the US. This fourth, and final, installment looks closer at the two odd men out, Russia and the Kurds.


Iran and Saudi Arabia are the twin engines fueling this regional proxy war between Shia and Sunni Islam. Resolving that fight won't be fast, quick, or painless.

Player: Russia
(Team Shia)
Under normal circumstances, I would start with Kurds and end with Russians, since there are actual Kurds living in Iraq but very few Russians. However, Russia just reportedly sent a handful of Su-25 ground attack aircraft to Iraq, along with technical experts (and maybe even pilots). And one should always give serious consideration to the idea that ground attack aircraft in an active theater of battle should have right-of-way. So let’s start with the Russians.

Footage from Iraq's Ministry of Defense covering the arrival of three of its newly acquired Su-25 ground attack aircraft.

There are three reasons that Russia is involved so intimately in the current fighting.

Firstly, the Russians (like the US and just about everyone with an economy) have long taken a keen interest in the Middle East, its many diverse and baffling conflicts, and its oil. During the Cold War, there weren’t a lot of good options for the Soviet Union to muscle in on much of the Western-allied Middle East (which amounted to Team Sunni Establishment).

However, they did find a way in through the pan-Arab movement which sort-of, kind-of, temporarily brought together some of the countries in the region. The rise of pan-Arabism gave the Soviets an opening and, as a result, Syria and Iraq both ended up as Soviet client states (Syria more so than Iraq). Syria is even host to the only overseas Russian naval base that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Secondly, Russia has had a certain… history with Team Sunni Extreme. The entire Chechen Civil War — and its persistent, ugly consequences — put Russia on a first-name basis with Team Sunni Extreme, a bit like 9/11 did for the US. With a whole lot of arm-twisting, midnight raids, and professional brutality, Russia has been able to keep the lid on the Team Sunni Extreme operators actually on the loose inside its borders.

Jihad Olympics: Sochi's terror problem. Watch here.

Because of this relationship with Team Sunni Extreme, the thousand or more Chechens fighting in Syria, and the fact that Syria and Iraq are rapidly becoming the world headquarters for Sunni extremist terrorism, Russia has been quite happy to help Syria pound on those guys. In the end, it saves everyone a lot of time and effort if the Syrians are able to kill Chechens in the Syrian countryside, rather than going the long way around and tracking them down in Russia, arresting them, putting them on trial, and screwing around with prison paperwork.

Thirdly, there's Iran’s relationship with the US. As discussed in part 3, the Iranian government emphasizes its brand identity as the most anti-US, anti-Israel, and anti-Western Islamic theocracy in business today. Russia doesn’t have nearly the same amount of bad blood with Iran that the US does (which stretches from coups to taking an embassy hostage).

So Russia is perfectly willing to accept a fellow opponent to the US in its warm embrace (and stick their thumb in America’s eye). Iran seems relatively comfortable with the relationship, mainly because the Russians are just about the only people you can talk to these days who don’t pitch a complete fit at the phrase “Iranian nuclear weapons.”


Should the Iraqi government continue to make enemies out of Sunnis and Kurds, they’ll probably turn towards the Russian arms industry due to its “no questions asked” export policy.

The result of all this is that Russia is perfectly happy to back Team Shia (and Iran) in its proxy war with Team Sunni (and its ally, the US). Russia also doesn’t have a huge interest in whether or not Team Iraq prevails. They didn’t invade Iraq in 2003 and see no compelling reason to care about an Iraqi unity government now.

Should Maliki and the Iraqi government continue to screw around with making enemies out of Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds, they’ll probably turn more towards the Russian arms industry due to its general “no questions asked” export policy. For example, a couple of years ago Iraq ordered a fair number of F-16 fighters from the US, so the Iraqi Air Force would have some actual “force” to it. But, with the US being the US, it has been taking forever to get the planes into Iraqi hands. In the last few days, Maliki has taken to whining about this to the BBC, among other places.

Vladimir Putin, sly character that he is, noticed that he has an entire air force that spends the vast majority of its time not being involved in a war right now. Accordingly, he packed up some ground attack aircraft he had lying around and shipped them on over. Given that reassembling an aircraft is way harder than building anything IKEA has ever made, Russia is even sending along a contingent of “technical experts” to help the Iraqis put them back together with the wings facing the right way and whatnot. The Iraqi government has helpfully pointed out that it totally swears that those Russians are absolutely not, no way, no how, any kind of military advisors.


Besides the problem of reassembling the aircraft, it’s not easy to just up and fly combat missions in them if you’ve never actually flown that particular model of plane. There have been some rumors that the Russian “technical experts” will be flying combat missions as well. Russia says this idea is nuts and that none of its pilots will be participating in military missions, as it is forbidden. Perhaps the thinking is that not flying the plane into the ground is a key technical aspect to successful combat jet operation. Either way, should the fighting drag on with Maliki (or someone like him) at the helm, expect to see more and more Russian arms and "experts" showing up in Iraq.

But buckle up, because this is about to get baffling. Iran also supposedly deployed their own Su-25 combat aircraft to Baghdad. Apparently Iranian planes joined the action, bombing ISIS as early as June 21. So now, recent footage (like the video embedded above) which claims to show arriving Russian aircraft, are apparently actually Iranian aircraft. Which means (I think) that the Iraqi purchase of Russian planes was fulfilled with Iranian aircraft stock. No word on how Russia and Iran are to square accounts, or whether the reported Iranian deployment was really just transferring jets to Iraq.

VICE News spoke to one unnamed Department of Defense analyst who summed up the overall situation as “fucking bonkers.”


Also, since Iran’s Revolutionary Guard “deployed” all its Su-25 ground attack aircraft to Iraq, it’s hard to figure whether the Iran will be carrying out any future airstrikes or if that will be another part of the Iranian military. This also opens up the possibility that the jets will have Iranian pilots.

So this might be Iraqi-owned jets, purchased from Russia, sourced from Iran, and flown by Iranian (or possibly Russian, or even Iraqi) pilots. They would be deployed against Iraqi and Syrian fighters — who are funded by Saudi nationals and equipped from bases in Syria — operating in western and northern Iraq.

Furthermore, whoever is flying those planes may be flying combat missions against targets identified by US reconnaissance, relayed through a US-run joint operations center, in support of ground forces trained and supported by Iranian soldiers (and alongside US Special Forces guys also advising the Iraqis). The aircraft will be based out of the same airfield as the just-deployed US AH-64 attack helicopters and armed drones.

Anyhow, the airstrikes will be against ISIS units that are, in part, equipped with American equipment recently seized from the Iraqi Army, as well as weapons provided by Saudi Arabia with US funding that "fell off the back of a truck" somewhere in Syria. Or possibly against ISIS troops also under attack by Saudi forces just deployed to the Iraqi border, who may end up in combat with ISIS inside Iraq.


If all this makes you want to cry, that’s OK. VICE News spoke to one unnamed Department of Defense analyst who summed up the overall situation as “fucking bonkers.”

Player: Iraq’s Kurds
(Team Kurd)
At least among Washington DC’s beltway crowd, support for Iraq’s Kurds is probably close to 95 percent. They seem to be the only group in the Middle East with whom the US has developed a good working relationship. Even better, neither side has truly screwed the other in recent memory (or at least in a way that anyone is still holding a grudge about).

Kurdistan, the Kurdish homeland, is home to some 40 million people. There’s only one teeny, tiny problem with Kurdistan. Apparently Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq all set up their respective countries right on top it. Technically speaking, in terms of being a country, Kurdistan doesn’t actually exist.

Granted, the Kurds have been hell bent on turning it into a country for a while, but the other people who actually control the various parts of what would form Kurdistan have their own ideas about the whole thing, and have consistently vetoed the idea, often with bullets and artillery.

Over the last several decades of strife and war, however, Kurds in various regions have eked out more and more autonomy by default, as their hosts have fallen prey to violence. Some have reached peaceful accommodation. In both Syria and Iraq, the Kurds are effectively running their own governments, complete with militaries (the peshmerga) and trappings of civil society.


Last fall VICE News went to see Syrian Kurdistan and this is what we saw. Watch here.

The Kurds have continued to slowly and steadily inch towards rectifying the troublesome (as they see it) non-existence of Kurdistan. Iraq’s Kurds are leading the charge now, and are trying to break off their chunk of Iraq before renaming it. Syrian Kurds are also entertaining the same idea, ultimately hoping to fuse the two bits together.

The problem is that breaking Iraqi Kurdish territory from Iraq would be an immense step towards Iraq falling apart altogether, and that is regarded (at least in the US) as a Very Bad Thing. The basic reasoning behind that is if Iraq fragments, it’s just going be a long, brutal bout of ethnic cleansing, sectarian oppression, and the other many joys that made the former Yugoslavia such a delightful place in the 1990s. Further, if Iraq breaks up, the US is going to feel really dumb for spending some much effort on it over the last decade.

Kurdish independence also puts them directly at cross-purposes with the US, the main fan and biggest current booster of Team Iraq. Which means that US Secretary of State John Kerry spends a fair amount of time talking to his Kurdish friends, convincing them that they support a single, unitary Iraq. Kurdish officials will hold to this line for hours, even days at a time, before rediscovering that they’d really would like to have free and independent Kurdistan, Iraq be damned. At which point the US calls them back up to remind them how very enthusiastic they are about not having a Kurdistan, but instead being a minority partner in the three-way grudge match of Iraq.


What the Kurds are really hoping for is that Iraq shatters into pieces on its own. In that scenario, they get a good starter Kurdistan, without being the bad guys. This is why the Iraqi Kurds keep talking pushing the idea that the country is already partitioned. And they’re planning a referendum about Kurdish independence to validate the idea that Iraq isn’t really a thing anymore. After all, the independence referendum in Crimea did such a bang-up job of putting disputes to rest, that any lingering discord about the future of the Kurds is sure to come to a screeching halt after a vote, right?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan isn’t interested in Kurdistan out of the goodness of his heart. He isn’t interested in anything out of the goodness of his heart.

The other big factor for the Kurds is the Turkish government. Historically, the Turks have been emphatic about the Kurds getting any bright ideas, and have liberally pounded the Turkish Kurd population whenever they got out of line. However, this time may be different.

Turkey might just be cozying up to the idea of an independent Kurdistan. To begin with, it has become much more economically viable, courtesy of oil fields developed with Turkish help and exported to the world via a pipeline through Turkey. Secondly, the Turks have been watching all the madness across their southern border with Syria and Iraq, and don’t relish the idea of getting drawn into a Saudi-Iranian proxy war.


To be sure, Turkey is a regional power. But nobody (with the possible exception of Team Sunni Extreme, who is kind of crazy anyways) wants to see another set of warring national interests embroiled in the already migraine-inducing festival of death and confusion spreading across the region.

Enter the Kurds. An independent Kurdistan, especially one beholden to Turkey, would be a wonderful buffer against many of the possible neighbors that Turkey could end up with. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan isn’t interested in Kurdistan out of the goodness of his heart. He isn’t interested in anything out of the goodness of his heart. He’s a bellicose and authoritarian guy who wouldn’t blink before stomping all over the Kurds. But as harsh as he may be, he’s no fan at all some of the prospective choices for neighbors.

In an odd twist, Israel has been a big supporter of the Kurds in their independence quest. Basically, they’re two populations who mistrust Arabs, who have hankered for an ethnic homeland as a response to oppression. Besides, Israel is intent on pursuing ties with anyone in or near the Middle East who will be seen with them in public.

Also, Israel was one of the first customers for Kurdish oil. So the Israelis have been publicly and regularly telling the US that an independent Kurdistan is a “foregone conclusion” as a result of Iraq’s de facto partition. Not that they’re actively lobbying for an independent Kurdistan, mind you. In diplomatic parlance, they are “Just sayin’.”

Finally, the coalition of the willing has coalesced in what is surely the strangest collection of bedfellows in recent Mesopotamian history.

Over the last few weeks the Middle East has been blowing up, changing, and getting turned upside down as fast as the internet can blather about it. Everything that’s been said up to this point, could be rendered invalid in a mere matter of hours. Alternately, we could be looking at the opening scenes of a decades-long meat grinder of sectarian violence. If the fighting in Syria and Iraq really fuses into one giant war, the very ideas of "Syria" and "Iraq" could become completely outmoded.

Returning to the idea that this is a new chapter in the proxy war between Iran (and the Shia) versus Saudi Arabia (and the Sunni), the battle is to determine which faction can retain control of the region once called “the fertile crescent.” And whoever can win that battle and prevail over their co-religionists will strengthen their claim to leadership of the Muslim world.

And God only knows what that will mean.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo by Boris Niehaus via Wikimedia Commons