The skies of Iraq are getting crowded. U.S. Apache attack helicopters and unarmed drones are being deployed along with the 500 American troops already ordered to the country. They’re just the latest foreign aircraft to join the fight against ISIS, the jihadist group that’s swept through northern and western Iraq in recent weeks.
The Syrian Air Force bombed targets that were allegedly ISIS positions in western Iraq last week. Iran has reportedly sent its entire fleet of Sukoi-24 fighter jets to Iraq. And Russia has sent jets and “advisors” to assist Baghdad.
The U.S. military is now in a situation where it likely has to work out military logistics with countries that are typically adversarial with both U.S. policy and international norms more generally.
As combat aviation expert and blogger at The Aviationist David Cenciotti explained when reached by Business Insider, “it is possible to fly Apache and drones in Iraq without any coordination with other air forces operating in the same airspace, but it would be quite dangerous For proper deconfliction of tactical assets, prior coordination and air space management and control are required.”
Cenciotti notes that this could be done through “creating a coordination cell” with the other militaries present in the country, or even by “deploying a dedicated asset” like surveillance aircraft “for Airspace Control, Airborne Early Warning, ground targets identification, and mapping.”
So U.S. military planners will have to coordinate their activities with other actors to avoid friendly fire incidents or other potentially-dicey confrontations between countries with plenty of political and strategic baggage in their relationships with the U.S.
More than that, the deployment of U.S. combat aircraft means that the U.S. is acting as a potential force multiplier for some of the international community’s most problematic actors.
The dangers with aligning with Iran-Russia-Assad
The Syrian government is one of the most oppressive in the world, and was responsible for a chemical weapons attack in Damascus that killed over 1500 people in August of 2013. Iran is one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism according to the U.S. State Department, and has fostered violent sectarianism in Iraq through its arming of Shi’ite militias and support for despotic Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea got it kicked out of the G8 in March, and several Russian officials are under EU and U.S. sanctions over the country’s expansionist policies towards Ukraine.
Yet the alliance between these three countries has transformed the Middle East in the years after the “Arab Spring” protests of 2011. Russian and Iranian support allowed the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad to survive against a constellation of secular and jihadist rebel groups — feeding a war that’s killed over 150,000 people and leading to the displacement of over 9 million.
Iran’s strong position in Syria — enabled through Russian financial, diplomatic and military support for Assad — has allowed it to turn Baghdad into a veritable client, to the point where Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani is arguably the most powerful person in the country.
And there’s been plenty of blowback from these policies throughout the Middle East, from the destabilization of Lebanon to the ongoing falling out between the U.S. and its Gulf allies to the potential creation of an independent Kurdistan.
The U.S.’s deployment of attack helicopters to Iraq for possible use against ISIS doesn’t prove that Washington is explicitly assisting Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran in their regional ambitions, which have had such a disruptive effect on the post-Arab Spring Middle East. But that may be the likeliest effect of the U.S. joining the fight in Iraq on the side of Russia, Syria, and Iran.
Michael Doran, a former senior director at the National Security Council and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Business Insider that the Obama administration needs to stifle both Iran and ISIS’s regional strategies if it wants a comprehensive solution to the problems wracking Syria and Iran. In his view, the U.S. needs to avoid taking a side in the region’s larger Sunni-Shi’ite split — now encapsulated in the fight between Shi’ite Iran and its Iraqi clients, and Sunni extremists like ISIS — and work to curtail all of the region’s bad actors.
“If you want to build up a non-jihadi Sunni force that is capable of commanding loyalty from people on the ground then you have to fight Assad and push against Iran, and you push back against ISIS and Iran at the same time,” he said. “If you’re just fighting ISIS then you’re building an Iranian security system in the region.”
U.S. policy could have this effect even if it isn’t the Obama administration’s intent to strengthen Iran’s hand. Even simply coordinating intelligence with a sectarianized and Iranian-infiltrated Iraqi military could play to Tehran’s advantage.
“The Iraqis are a thin membrane between the U.S. and the Qods Force” says Doran, referring to the foreign arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. “Any intelligence that we give to the Iraqis is probably going to be on the desk of Qassem Suleimani in less than a day.”
With this increased commitment of U.S. military assets to Iraq, the U.S. isn’t just forcing itself to coordinate logistics with the Iranian-Syrian-Russian alliance in the Middle East. It’s also bringing American policy alarmingly close to that of some of the region’s more destructive forces — whether Obama intends for this or not.
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