December 2, 2014

"The unwanted ally" - Iran conducts airstrikes against ISIS

Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force F-4E with four AGM-65 Maverick anti-tank missiles

According to an anonymous Obama Administration official, aircraft of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) have conducted airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets in Iraq. This means that ISIS is being attacked by the air forces of three distinct entities: the U.S.-led coalition, the Syrian Air Force and now the IRIAF.

While that might sound like a good thing - more attacks on the enemy should be a welcome situation - it creates a dangerous situation. Many members of the coalition, primarily the United States, have no diplomatic relations let alone military contacts with Iran or Syria. Iran and Syria are close allies, in fact they have had a mutual defense treaty in place for decades.

In Syria, coalition and Syrian aircraft are already operating in close proximity to each other. As an example, over the past week, there have been American and Syrian airstrikes on ISIS's self-proclaimed capital city of al-Raqqah in north central Syria. Al-Raqqah is also close to the flight routes to and from the embattled city of Kobani (also called 'Ayn al-'Arab) on the Turkish border.

Al-Raqqah and Kobani ('Ayn al-'Arab)

It is hard to believe that there is no coordination or some contact between the coalition and the Syrian defense ministry. You simply cannot have armed, high-performance military aircraft operating in close proximity to each other without some coordination. Things happen very quickly at the speeds at which these aircraft operate, all flown by young, aggressive pilots.

There are a variety of American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft operating around the clock over Iraq with the capability to monitor all air activity over both countries (and beyond). These assets will detect any potential threat to American or coalition aircraft, and direct a reaction if necessary. The potential for a misunderstanding and a combat engagement is high.

I suspect that because of political realities, there is a level of coordination between the Syrian and Iraqi ministries of defense. The Iraqi government of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was a close ally of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Asad.

That alliance undoubtedly continues under new Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi. The alliance goes further - both Syria and Iraq are close allies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Some observers have lamented the de facto establishment of "Shi'a Crescent" extending from Beirut via Damascus and Baghdad to Tehran.

Enter the Iranian Air Force. Iranian forces in Iraq are nothing new - they have had troops operating in a variety of roles in Iraq since the fall of Mosul to ISIS earlier this year. Iran deployed members of its capable Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) special operations unit, the Qods Force.

Although the official Iranian government line is that while there are Iranian "advisers" in Iraq, there are no combat troops - somewhat akin to the Obama Administration fiction that there are no American forces in Iraq in a combat role. However, on Arabic and Persian language social media, there are numerous postings that detail Iranian forces' operations in both Iraq and Syria.


Granted, the Iranian airstrikes have targeted ISIS positions about 20 miles from the Iranian border inside Iraq. After the fall of Mosul, ISIS forces advanced rapidly down the Tigris Valley to the Ba'qubah area and then headed up the Diyala Valley towards the strategic dam at Jalula', as well as moving west towards the Iraqi Kurdish Autonomous Region capital of Irbil.

After some initial difficulties, the Kurdish peshmerga fighters were able to blunt the ISIS offensive. The Kurds, with Iraqi Army and coalition air support, were able to retake the strategic Mosul dam and are now pushing back in the Jalula' area. The Iranian airstrikes were in support of that operation.

The Kurds have a good relationship with the Iranians - they have done so for years, often as a counterbalance to the hostile Saddam regime. After all, Saddam used chemical weapons on the Iraqi Kurd population in the city of Halabjah in 1988 to test the newly developed Sarin nerve agent. When I worked with the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1995-1996, we often ran into IRGC Qods Force teams doing pretty much the same things that we were doing....

Just what does the coordination between the Syrians, Iranians and the coalition entail? Since the middleman in all this is most likely the Iraqi military intelligence service, I suspect that not only are details of air operations being shared, but whether we like it or not, our intelligence on ISIS is finding its way to planners at tactical air operations centers in Syria and Iran as well. Hopefully, we are getting some of their intelligence in return - I have no doubt that the Syrians and Iranians have useful, actionable intelligence on ISIS.

Right now, ISIS is the enemy. In the future, Syria and Iran will probably be. Let's rid the world of the scourge of ISIS, then worry about the others. So, Iran may be an "unwanted ally," but it helps achieve our objective.