Many in official Washington are expressing outrage over suspicions that Iraq is allowing neighboring Iran to use its airspace to fly military equipment to the Syrian regime. Iraq has denied the allegations and asked the US to provide proof that the flights contain anything other than humanitarian supplies, as Iran claims. The question of whether Iran is actually using Iraqi airspace to send Assad weapons is not really the interesting issue here (who would be surprised if that’s exactly what’s going on?).
More interesting is that the US is pretending to object to other countries violating Iraq’s sovereignty and using Iraqi airspace for nefarious purposes. Indeed, this is precisely what the US has done to Iraq for two decades. In the context of this feigning outrage about violating Iraqi airspace and of providing Iraq with American-made anti-aircraft capabilities because of it, Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen told the New York Times that “Iraq recognizes they don’t control their airspace, and they are very sensitive to that.” 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.” Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations responds:
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.
General Caslen’s comments exemplify how blind official Washington is to how US policy might be perceived by those living under the boot of American imperialism. He says Iraq resents Turkish overflights. And when Sen. Joseph Lieberman visited Iraq earlier this month to bully Baghdad into stopping Iranian flights to Syria over Iraq, he claimed it was intrusive to Iraq’s sovereignty. Neither of these imperialists can see that Iraq might have resented the decade-long no-fly-zone the US imposed on Iraq in the 1990s. Or, say, the complete control of Iraqi airspace following an unprovoked invasion in 2003. Or even US cooperation with Turkey as it violates Iraqi airspace and even bombs the Kurdish region. They are blind.
Even as the US is pressuring Baghdad to stop being complicit in alleged arming of the Assad regime, Washington continues to be complicit in sending arms into Syria as well – except to the criminal rebel militias instead of the regime.
What gives the US and its allies the right to send aid and weapons to the Syrian opposition, while such actions are prohibited for Iraq or Iran, is not clear. The same hypocrisy holds in almost every case of international relations. What is acceptable and just for America, is cruel and nefarious for its enemies.