With astonishing speed, American influence—withered by years of Barack Obama’s indecisiveness—is fading, as Iraq realigns around Russia and Iran. Take it from the Iraqis, who are celebrating the arrival of “Putin the Shiite” in Syria, hoping he’ll swing into Iraq to pick up the fight against ISIS.
“I have been waiting for Russia to get involved in the fight against Daesh,” Baghdad painter Mohammed Karim Nihaya told AFP. “They get results. The United States and its allies on the other hand have been bombing for a year and achieved nothing.”
Nihaya was sitting in his studio, lovingly putting the finishing touches on a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin as he spoke.
The Iraqis don’t appear to have been alarmed by the sight of Russian cruise missiles streaking across their airspace, and they don’t much care about the modest percentage of Russian strikes actually targeting ISIS in Syria.
“We don’t want the international coalition, we want only Russia and we will slaughter a sheep to welcome them,” exclaimed a “young jobless man” outside Mohammed Nihaya’s studio.
AFP cites the stability of Moscow’s foreign policy, which has never wavered from supporting Bashar Assad in Syria, and Putin’s “patented leadership brand of bare-chested antics and cold determination” as attractive to Iraqis. Conversely, they don’t seem impressed by the ineffectual dilettante Obama and his stone-faced Secretary of State John Kerry droning on about “deconfliction” while Putin is dropping bombs.
The Iraqis are so nuts for Putin that they’re spreading stories on social media about how he’s supposedly got some Iraqi blood in him, hailing him as “Putin the Shiite” and using his face for their Facebook profile photos. There are calls to grant him honorary Iraqi citizenship and fairly serious calls from Iraqi politicians to formally request Russian military assistance in liberating cities captured by the Islamic State. Among those who have hinted they would welcome a Russian presence is the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is a very big deal in the Shiite precincts of Iraq.
Some of the Iraqis interviewed by AFP claimed Putin’s action in Syria has convinced them to give up on plans to flee their war-torn country, because they think he’s going to set things right with ISIS. “I thank Putin because he convinced me to stay in Iraq… Hajji Putin is better than Hussein Obama,” said a taxi driver, bestowing upon Putin the honorific normally reserved for a Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Perhaps Obama should have checked with the Iraqis before blowing off the threat of ISIS as the antics of a “junior varsity league” or declaring he had a secret plan for a slow-burn strategy that would get the Islamic State out of Iraq in a couple of decades.
An article at Foreign Affairs this week sees Putin muscling the weak Obama out of Iraq as a distinct possibility, noting that the Iraqis are solid customers for Russian arms, see the Russians as more understanding of military realities against ISIS than the Americans, and are frustrated by all the fine print lurking at the bottom of U.S. deals, viewing American political conditions for military assistance as “patronizing.”
The Iraqis are arguably shifting some of the blame for their own military shortcomings onto Obama, but Putin will be happy to indulge those habits, if it leads to greater Russian influence. The Foreign Affairs analysts actually support Obama’s basic strategy against ISIS, while criticizing the president for executing it with too much caution, but they seem to be underestimating the Iraqis’ willingness to suffer some collateral damage from Putin’s “hard and strong” approach, if it gets results.
That’s especially true if the Russian pitch is aimed more at the dominant Shiite faction in Iraq, as can be seen by all this “Putin the Shiite” talk from Baghdad’s man on the street. The U.S. is trying to coax and cajole an effective Sunni Iraqi fighting force into existence, but it’s not working. If Russia gets involved, riding high on success in Syria and arriving to the cheers of Iraqi Shiites, and they manage to put some hurt on the Islamic State, the effect on Sunni Iraqis could be interesting.
It might even turn out that Russia will take credit for victories that were set up by years of American effort, and it will work because Obama has so thoroughly destroyed American credibility and leadership in the region. He didn’t just lose Iraq, he threw it away, and Putin might have an opportunity to pick up what so much American blood and treasure built, at a bargain price.