October 26, 2014

Baghdad and its two supporting coalitions

The members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are not the only foreign countries supporting Iraq. As evidenced by the Facebook post above, both the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran are participating, and have opened up a joint operations center in Baghdad. This is a parallel, separate operations center from the two American-Iraqi joint operations centers (one in Baghdad and one in the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil).

Iranian and Russian presence in Iraq is nothing new. The Russians are in the process of delivering a variety of weapons to the Iraqi armed forces - these include fighter jets, attack helicopters, mobile air defense systems, artillery pieces and rocket launchers. Those sales packages, of course, come with the requisite trainers and advisers.

The Russian-Iraqi military relationship goes back decades - Moscow was the primary supplier of Iraqi weapons from 1958 until the removal of the Saddam Husayn regime in 2003. The current Iraqi inventory is a mixture of American and European - both East and West - equipment.

The deployment of Russian officers as advisers in this joint Iraqi-Iranian-Russian operations center is a new development. For the Russians, it is an attempt to once again be relevant in Iraq, part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's effort to once again be relevant in the overall Middle East.

The Iranians have been a key player in Iraqi politics since the fall of the Ba'th Party and Saddam Husayn. Almost immediately after the Americans removed Saddam, the Iranians attempted to become the major power broker in the Persian Gulf region - with some success.

Iran has been able to create what many analysts call the "Shi'a Crescent" - a band of influence that extends from Beirut through Damascus and Baghdad to Tehran. Iraq has been transformed from an anti-Iran, anti-Syria country to a close ally of both of its neighbors.

Iranian special forces, members of the elite Qods Force, have been in both Syria and Iraq for months fighting ISIS, as well in Syria for years fighting the "moderate" anti-regime rebels. In fact, had Iran not come to the assistance of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in 2012 by deploying its forces and those of its Lebanese proxy Hizballah, the Syrian regime may well have fallen.

Note the Facebook post on the Iran Military page above - it makes no secret that Iranian forces are in the fight against ISIS. The page highlights the success of the Iranians in retaking the Jurf al-Sakhar area (see map below) from ISIS.

The Jurf al-Sakhar area is located about 25 miles south-southwest of Baghdad in a Sunni-populated area. On the Euphrates River, it is part of the ISIS campaign to seize as much of the Euphrates Valley as possible, putting them in an excellent position to threaten Baghdad and the strategically essential Baghdad International Airport.

Pushing ISIS out of this area is a good thing, and it appears that the Iranians did a good job. I do need to point out that this area was the focus of the very first American airstrikes in Iraq after President Barack Obama authorized U.S. military action in August. One wonders if there was U.S. or coalition air support, or perhaps Iraqi Army Aviation assistance, for this operation.

Iran's stance on the U.S.-led coalition was predictable. Media coverage of a recent meeting between new Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Ibadi and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (photo) provided some interesting dialogue.

Khamenei: "We have no trust and confidence in the honesty of those making these remarks (against ISIS) and believe that the issue of ISIS and terrorism should be resolved by regional countries. The present circumstances in the region, including in Iraq, are the outcome of irresponsible policies adopted by transregional powers and certain regional countries in Syria. We believe that the Iraqi nation and government, particularly the country’s youths, are capable of overcoming terrorists and establishing security and there is no need for the presence of foreigners."

I particularly like the hypocrisy of his claim that there is no need for the presence of foreigners in Iraq at the same time as his troops celebrate a victory, as well as announce the formation of a joint Russian-Iranian-Iraqi operations center in Baghdad. I can understand where he might in some tangential way believe that Iranians are not foreigners in Iraq, but then there are the Russians....

So now we have the U.S.-led coalition consisting of Americans, Europeans and Arabs - including the Iraqis, and a parallel coalition of Iranians, Russians and the Iraqis. One has to assume that the Iraqis, the only common denominator in the two, will be coordinating between the two groups.

Normally, having this many military forces in close proximity to each other with different command structures would be dangerous. However, since no one has significant "boots on the ground" except the Iraqis and the Iranians, and the fact that the Iranians*, Iraqis and Russians are not flying combat aircraft, it may work.

What a way to run a war.

* Although the Iranian military is not flying its combat aircraft in Iraq, it is almost certain that Iranian pilots are flying the Iraqi Air Force Sukhoi SU-25 fighters provided by the Islamic Republic. Iraqi pilots have not had experience in that aircraft since 1991, and anyone that has SU-25 experience is either long out of date or no longer serving in the now Shi'a-dominated Iraqi Air Force.