The Iraq conflict is turning right now into a fight that will redraw borders, and Russia and Iran are both positioning themselves to exert the principal influence on the outcome – if they can. It will probably take Americans a while to realize what’s going on. But this, in effect – this introduction of an air war that Maliki has no means of remaining in control of – is the shift that makes any further deliberations over the character of his government meaningless.
Trying to get him to reform will be much like trying to get Bashar al-Assad to reform: a pointless exercise, because Maliki’s viability doesn’t rely ultimately on satisfying the United States, and perhaps not even on keeping his Shia base happy. His viability is now tied to his utility to Iran and Russia.
Keep in mind going forward that life under the clients of Russia and Iran looks like the Syrian civil war and southern Lebanon (the latter of which is basically one big hostage community being used as a human shield for Hezbollah’s weapons caches and safe-houses). The game-changing commitment of these two nations in Iraq isn’t likely to bring quick decision or resolution. That kind of consummation, in the modern age, has been a rare artifact of American power.
The Russia-Iran shift may well flush out (i.e., expose) or solidify support for ISIS; there are regional actors both near and far – Turkey, China, the Muslim Brotherhood – who have no interest in seeing Russia and Iran determine the future of Iraq and Syria.
What we can probably count on is an increase in the bloodshed, at least for the near future.
* They are being erroneously referred to by many news agencies as “fighters,” but they are not air-superiority fighters designed for aerial combat. They’re optimized for attacking targets on the ground. They’re not precisely “bombers” either; if anything, they are more like the A-10 or C-130 gunship. They have a limited self-defense capability if they carry air-to-air missiles, but their guns are shoot-down cannons mounted under the fuselage — not meant for aerial combat — and their weapons mount configuration is optimized for air-to-ground missile, rocket, or guided-bomb attack. Assuming they see actual use in Iraq, going after ISIS could be the most informative test in 30 years of the Su-24’s close air support capabilities.