- Russia's current position in Syria as well as its naval assets in the Caspian Sea and long-range bombers in southern Russia would accommodate operations against the Islamic State in Iraq, but it could strike more effectively and more frequently using bases in Iraq itself.
- Setting up bases in Iraq would cost Russia more money, time and effort and could antagonize the United States.
- Through its operations in Syria, Russia is testing its capability to conduct air campaigns. It is a first for post-Soviet Russia and will shape Russia's future air campaigns.
The start of Russian airstrikes in Syria has given new hope to loyalist forces in their battle against a host of rebel factions, including the Islamic State. Now comments out of Baghdad and Moscow suggest that Russia may expand these operations into Iraq if requested to do so by Baghdad. Indeed, from its position in Latakia, Russia has the range to strike Islamic State targets in Iraq, although further deployment of resources may be required to do so effectively.
Expanding these operations to Iraq would, however, put Russian forces in the same battlespace as U.S. troops — which may well be Russia's goal. Russia's strategy, both in the Syria conflict and in planning possible operations in Iraq, is essentially to pressure the U.S. position and force Washington into high-level negotiations. This puts Baghdad — as well as Iran, which has also been active in the Iraqi theater — in a tough spot. Ultimately, Baghdad has a decision to make: reject Moscow's aid and continue to depend on U.S. military support, or welcome Russia into its territory at the risk of aggravating its Western ally.
Strictly speaking, targets in Iraq already fall within range of Russian naval assets in the Caspian Sea and of the Su-24 Fencer and Su-34 Fullback long-range ground attack aircraft Russia has positioned at Bassel al Assad airbase in Syria. Though these aircraft would have to spend less time over targets in Iraq than they do in Syria, Russia could conduct aerial refueling operations to remedy that.
Still, these refueling operations, as well as the longer flight times, would raise aircraft maintenance requirements and make accidents more likely. Russian aircraft would have to carry lighter payloads, and diverting planes to Iraq would also mean easing back in Syria. Over the past week Russia has maintained an average of around 20 sorties per day using the 32 aircraft stationed at Bassel al Assad air base in Latakia; reallocating resources for long-distance strikes in Iraq would further slow what is already a relatively moderate tempo of operations in Syria.
Yet Russia has already shown it can strike targets throughout the entire Syrian and Iraqi territory if necessary. The long-range bomber aircraft Russia have allegedly deployed to southern Russian air bases could fly south to strike targets in the Middle East, though so far Moscow has refrained from using them in Syria. Sea-based cruise missile platforms that Russia has already used in Syria could be just as useful in Iraq. Russian ships launched 26 cruise missiles in the Caspian Sea, striking targets across Syria after traveling through Iranian and Iraqi air space. Four of these cruise missiles crashed in Iran, near the town of Takab, as a likely testament to Russia's limited experience in actually using this type of weapon system in an operational environment. But the strikes still demonstrate that Russia's naval assets give it the power to hit targets in Iraq.
A Crowded Battlefield
A more effective alternative to flying long-range missions would be to establish air bases within Iraq. There are already many unused runways available to the Russians there, and the recent deployment into Syria has shown Russia is perfectly capable of establishing an effective air base in about a month. This would include Russia bringing in its own people to run the air base, putting in place logistical support systems and providing force protection. Such logistical feats come at a cost, however, and as economic sanctions and low energy prices are already imposing a heavy cost on Russia, the Kremlin may hesitate to invest heavily in Iraq's security. In addition, deploying air assets into Iraq would put the Russians even closer to U.S. assets and operations in Iraq, boosting the potential for incidents or at the very least compelling both Russia and the United States to cooperate more closely.
The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is likely to deter Russia from inserting its own ground forces. Without troops on the ground working side by side with Iraqis, Russia will have a hard time coordinating tactically with the Iraqi military, which could make its airstrikes less effective. In Syria, the Russian ground forces present in small numbers among loyalist units act as liaisons between the troops and Russian aircraft, providing intelligence and targeting information. In Iraq, such interaction with Iraqi security forces would be very difficult, and putting Russian forces on the ground in a theater where American troops are already present could create conflict. And while Russia cooperates closely with Iranian forces, there are not huge numbers of them in Iraq.
Setting aside the myriad costs to Russia of expanding its military operations, ultimately Iraq itself has to decide whether soliciting aid from Moscow is worth straining its relationship with the United States. The United States has devoted far more effort to Iraq than to Syria; to risk losing that support, Iraq would have to see enormous advantages to Russian military intervention. Unlike the U.S. military, which uses a vast array of intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assets to strike targets with precision-guided munitions, the Russians by and large use unguided weaponry to strike more indiscriminately. Then again, Russia is not hindered by the same rules of engagement that limit U.S. operations. By law, U.S. operations have to minimize the risk of civilian casualties and limit collateral damage. Iraq may decide that the Islamic State threat warrants the more heavy-handed approach that Russia offers, despite the dangers it poses to civilians.