The Iranian government is reportedly supplying military equipment via Iraqi airspace to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Although Iraq temporarily halted the flights in mid-March at the request of the Obama administration, they resumed in July. Last week, Reuters quoted from an intelligence report from an unnamed country: "Planes are flying from Iran to Syria via Iraq on an almost daily basis, carrying IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) personnel and tens of tons of weapons to arm the Syrian security forces and militias fighting against the rebels."
Yet again, the Obama administration has asked Iraq to ban the flights outright, or force them to land and undergo inspections. This would be a relatively simple process, as Iraq requires advance notice of eight business days for flights in its airspace, and mandates that such flights occur within twenty-four hours. Despite such demands, Iraq lacks the political will and the capability—specifically an integrated air defense radar system and robust air force—to establish complete control over its airspace. Yesterday, Lt. Gen Robert Caslen, chief of the Office of Security Cooperation at the U.S. embassy in Iraq, told the New York Times:
“Iraq recognizes they don’t control their airspace, and they are very sensitive to that,” General Caslen said. Each time Turkish fighter jets enter Iraq’s airspace to bomb Kurdish targets, he said, Iraqi officials “see it, they know it and they resent it.”
This is an interesting statement from the most senior U.S. military official in Iraq. As the countries’ occupying power, the United States controlled Iraqi airspace from April 2003 until the last sector was transferred in October 2011 to Iraq. As part of that role, the United States leveraged access to Iraqi airbases to launch surveillance drone missions over Iran. At the same time, several of Iran’s more capable spy drones like the Ababil III were easily tracked and shot down by U.S. fighter jets over Iraq.
Prior to the U.S. invasion in March 2003, the United States played the predominant role in enforcing the Iraqi southern and northern no-fly zones (NFZs)—encompassing sixty percent of Iraq—for twelve years. Altogether, the United States has had excellent situational awareness of Iraqi airspace for nearly twenty years, until handing over control to Baghdad in October 2011.
What makes Caslen’s comments disturbing is that between April 2003 and October 2011, Turkish F-16s routinely entered Iraqi airspace to attack Kurdish targets—suspected members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). These attacks were not only permitted by the United States, but U.S. manned and unmanned systems provided targeting information about suspected PKK camps to Turkey. This arrangement was cemented in November 2007 when the United States and Turkey established a joint combined intelligence fusion cell in Ankara to process all incoming intelligence on the PKK.
On occasion, such Turkish attacks have been devastating to Kurdish civilians living in northern Iraq. Every single State Department Human Rights report—2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010—since the U.S.-Turkey cell opened warned of civilians casualties in counterterrorism operations where the PKK was the intended target. On December 28, 2011, a U.S. Predator drone provided video imagery of a caravan of suspected PKK militants near the Turkish border. After Turkish officers directed the drone to fly elsewhere, Turkish aircraft attacked the caravan with four sorties and killed thirty-four civilians. To this day, the United States provides targeting intelligence to the Turkish Air Force.
If, as Caslen claims, Iraqis are aware of and resent the ongoing Turkish incursions into Iraq, they assuredly resented U.S. control of Iraqi airspace. Given the U.S. criticisms of Iraqi unwillingness to curtail Iranian arms and personnel flights headed to the Assad regime in Syria, it is also worth highlighting who else violates Iraqi airspace, and who supports those intrusions.