Russia lobbies Iraq to open airspace for military flights to Syria

Russia has asked the Iraqi government to reopen its airspace to the Russian military, which wants to transport troops and equipment to its bases in eastern Syria, an Iraqi diplomat and officials told Middle East Eye.

The proposed Russia-Syria air corridor through Iraqi airspace would be the shortest and least expensive route for Moscow, after Turkey closed its airspace to Russian civilian and military aviation in April last year , the officials said.

Russia has had troops stationed in Syria since it intervened in the conflict on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in 2015. The troops are important both to maintain Assad’s position and to strengthen Russia’s regional ambitions and influence, and as that is Moscow’s priority and maintaining its presence. Damascus.

Initially, Russia did not have many problems with using Iraqi airspace to make flights to and from Syria, but the government of former Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi “imposed restrictions because [Russian flights] threatening US military bases in Iraq and Syria”, the diplomat told MEE.

The diplomat spoke on the condition that neither he nor his country be identified.

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However, since Muhammad Shia al-Sudan replaced Kadhimi in October, these restrictions have begun to be rolled back, the diplomat said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Baghdad last month, along with a large delegation of diplomats and businessmen. The delegation met with several leaders from Iraq, including Sudan, President Abdul Latif Rashid, and Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi.

During the visit, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said that the Iraqi and Russian parties discussed ways to strengthen relations between the two “friendly countries” and mechanisms to pay the debts of Russian companies operating in Iraq.

Baghdad is struggling to pay its Russian debts after western countries imposed sanctions on Moscow in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

However, the diplomat and two of Sudan’s advisers told MEE that Lavrov discussed three files with the Iraqi prime minister, one of which was the debt owed by Iraq to Russian companies.

“Russia’s debt owed by Iraq may reach $1bn, and this figure means nothing to Russia and is not a priority for Moscow,” the diplomat said.

Flight permit delayed

The two most important files discussed by Lavrov with Sudan are gaining access to military flights through Iraq and activating the Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Iraqi (RSII) security coalition.

The RSII coalition was formed in 2015 to share intelligence and coordinate military operations against the Islamic State (IS) group. Since the loss of IS, however, it has become relatively obsolete.

“The new government gave permission to three [flight] permits for the Russians in the last few months, but the Russian side did not receive them until shortly before the end of their validity period, and they did not take advantage of them,” the diplomat said.

‘The use of Iraqi airspace is a necessity for the Russians following recent developments’

– Diplomat source

The Iraqi Joint Military Operations Command was late in sending these permits to the Russians for reasons that are not clear, the diplomat said, “and there was not enough time to prepare the shipments”.

“The use of Iraqi airspace is a necessity for the Russians after the recent developments. The use of the other corridors will be longer, more expensive and require the approval of other countries,” he said.

Two of Sudan’s advisers, who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Lavrov had again asked Sudan to allow Russian military aircraft to use Iraqi airspace to provide “logistical support” to Russian forces in the Syria.

However, they said the Iraqi government is still discussing its options.

“The Russians have been using Iraqi airspace for this purpose for many years, but the situation is sensitive at the moment,” said one of them.

“The Russians themselves also deal with it sensitively, and they will not put Iraq in a critical corner.”

Arrears of Russia

Russia is one of the biggest investors in Iraq, with annual investments of over $13bn, mainly in the energy sector. It is also one of the most important suppliers of military equipment to the Iraqi security forces.

But western sanctions have meant that Baghdad has struggled to pay Russian companies operating in Iraq what they are owed for various services rendered.

As a result, the Oil Ministry’s debts to Gazprom and Lukoil amount to about $770m, and the Defense Ministry owes about $650m more for military equipment, officials said.

One proposal is a share of the oil produced instead of giving cash to the energy companies to settle some of that debt, the diplomat said.

Representatives of Russian oil producer Lukoil attend the Iraq Oil and Gas Show conference in Baghdad on February 18 (AFP)
Representatives of Russian oil producer Lukoil attend the Iraq Oil and Gas Show conference in Baghdad on February 18 (AFP)

“The problem is in the debt of the Ministry of Defense, and Russia can use this as a pressure card,” said the diplomat.

The amount owed is not considered very large, and the diplomat said some of it has been paid into a Russian account in the Iraqi Trade Bank, which cannot be withdrawn without violating sanctions but is seen as an act of good faith nonetheless. .

“But it is still a debt that must be paid.”

Pressure in Syria

Russia has little influence in Iraq compared to the United States and Iran. And Iraq is clearly not worried about the Russian debt issue.

During Lavrov’s visit, Iraq and Russia agreed to establish a committee to find a way to pay the debt, but according to the diplomat it has not yet fulfilled “and the Iraqi side did not consider this issue as a priority or urgent “.

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The Sudanese advisers declared that “things are good” with the Russians, and “nothing affects the peaceful relations between the two countries”.

The diplomat did not rule out Russia putting pressure on the Iraqi government inside Iraq if it refused Moscow use of its airspace. Iraqi officials also ruled out the withdrawal of Russian oil companies from Iraq.

Russia will not “sacrifice the influence these companies get to secure it”, a senior Iraqi official told MEE.

“However, it may stop contracts to supply military equipment and provide maintenance to Russian weapons used by the defense ministry.”

However, the Iraqi diplomat and officials did not rule out that Russia could start to indirectly pressure Iraq in Syria. “And this explains Russia’s demand to activate the fourfold security agreement,” said the diplomat.

“Iraq is a vital part of the global energy system, especially now. All the major international players now agree that stability in Iraq is essential, they must all preserve it.”

A Russian Mil Mi-17 military helicopter flies by soldiers and military vehicles during a joint Russian-Turkish patrol in rural eastern Syria (AFP)
A Russian Mil Mi-17 military helicopter flies by soldiers and military vehicles during a joint Russian-Turkish patrol in eastern Syria (AFP/file photo)

Officials said that Russia and its Iranian partner know that any attempt to destabilize Iraq would provoke a fierce reaction and come with a heavy price, so it is unlikely that any “games” will be seen in Iraq itself in the near future. .

“The Syrian arena is a strong candidate for some games, but it also has its own balances, and the game will not be between the United States and Russia directly,” said one of the officials.

“Both of them will use their tools in the region and their local and regional allies, and that’s a different story.”

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