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Russia’s New Iraqi Footprint: The Firebird in Baghdad

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By Dr. Terry Simmons
Special Guest Contributor

Saddam Hussein had a long standing political-military relationship with the Soviet Union. Traditionally in the Middle East, if post-colonial regimes could not get what they needed from the United States, they turned toward Moscow or perhaps Beijing.

The Cold War dynamic went something like this. The United States and NATO constituted the West. The Soviet Union was the other guys, sometimes vilified with terms like the Evil Empire by Cold War cold warriors like Ronald Reagan. The contest was the Cold War system of alignment with one coalition or the other. Political blackmail was the game. “If you give us what we want we will be on your side, if you don’t we will go with the other guys.” A few, like India, tried non-alignment, choosing a path of non-aligned independence. So much for Cold War 101.

After the USSR failed to show up for the next round of confrontation on Christmas Day in 1991, Russian communism was dead and the Cold War was officially over. Hurray! President Clinton almost immediately started to cash in the Peace Dividend after his arrival at the White House in 1993. After all, it was costing the United States Treasury billions of dollars annually to keep the contest going. More than 300 FBI and CIA and other coverts started flowing back into the United States and Western Europe per day.

Conservatives in the United States, just like conservatives after World War II, sounded the alarm that if America’s traditional long-term enemies perceived America standing down, reducing their defense postures, and reveling in victory, they and others, might be tempted to regroup for another go at bringing down the City on the Hill, the beacon of freedom in a dangerous and despotic world. They were dismissed as alarmists and pessimists who were never happy unless Americas was armed to the teeth. We had won! Relax and enjoy it became the motto.

As we watch in horror as ISIS forces shoot their way across the Levant and into Iraq in 2014, declaring a new Caliphate named Islamic State (IS), the United States shows their political confusion as to the significance and relevance of the Middle East being turned upside down, indeed, threatening the very state known as Iraq, in the bargain. Is this simply jihad running wild? Is it a new Cold War? Is it both or just general chaos and political anarchy in the most destabilized area of the world?

President Barack Obama has appeared as tentative in his initial reactions to the present crises. The obvious initial questions are predictable. Are the active remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), coupled with Sunni revanchism in Shiite dominated Iraq, finally breaking out and seizing their political-cultural goals of a transnational supranational theocratic polity ruled by Sharia law? Is the United States still motivated to sustain the nation-state political demarcation of a post-Sikes-Picot rational actor called Iraq? Further, will the other regional western constructs–Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the rest, soon face a monsoon of jihadist militarism bent on turning back the geopolitical clock toward the natural historical cultural traditions of tribal laws and territoriality based not on geopolitics but on Islamic tribalism?

Closer to reality perhaps, is the still prevalent dynamic of traditional cultures being supplanted and relegated to subjugation by technologically superior societies. The global macro geopolitical contest still revolves around these central issues: The determined relentless militaries of the jihadist forces whether led by Osama bin Laden in his day, the declining ideological leadership of Dr. Ayman Zawahiri of a decapitated al-Qaida Central, or the stunning audacity of a remade and much improved Abu Bakr al Baghdadi of the residual combined forces now know as ISIS, still use small arms forces and tactically superior tactics, in the field. They often are successful on the ground. However, none possess the superior firepower and technologically superior forces of the United States and a resurgent Russia. Even with the possibility of tactical nuclear weapons, the jihadist forces do not have the delivery systems to seriously challenge modern military strategic forces.

Specifically, President Obama sent in 750 advisers and special operators (to date) ostensibly to protect American assets at the American Embassy in Baghdad and remnant air assets remaining in country. By way of strategic response, Vladimir Putin has sent 12 (at last count) SU-25 tactical air support jets with their necessary support personnel and advisers into Iraq and forgiven $11 billion in old Cold War era debt.

If taken in isolation, these larger geopolitical moves by the U.S. and Russian Federation may seem problematic. However, given the intense recent political contest between Putin and Obama starting with the bold intercession of the SVR in Syria to stop the imminent American tactical tomahawk attack against Damascus last year, the recent political standoff created by an aggressive Russian militarized foreign policy initiative in Crimea and now eastern Ukraine, as well as recent repatriation of the North Korean paternal friendship regime relationship between Putin and Kim, the Russian foreign policy footprint is increasingly bold and becoming threateningly loud.

Is this Cold War 2 as is often stated as the political currency and jargon of the day, a freshly dynamic prophylactic formulaic activating during times of extreme stress in the international political system, or just a muscular expression of new geopolitical realities and intensified competition on the large chessboard of international relations? Moreover, is the United States in hegemonic retreat or revanchist recalibration, or is the new Russian Firebird Vladimir Putin simply in dynamic ascendance?

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