Obama's Middle East: Iranian Arms Flow to Syria Via Iraq

American lives squandered on the president's abandonment of the mission.

The Obama administration's abandonment of Iraq in its final stages of transition, leaving it to drift into the orbit of Iran, is beginning to reap enormous consequences. According to a Western intelligence report obtained by Reuters, Iran has been using civilian aircraft flying over Iraqi airspace to ship tons of weapons and military personnel to Syria, aiding Syrian President Bashar Assad's effort to crush the rebel uprising against his government. The transfers have reportedly been organized by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

"This is part of a revised Iranian modus operandi that U.S. officials have only recently addressed publicly, following previous statements to the contrary," said the report, a copy of which was provided to Reuters by a U.N. diplomatic source. "It also flies in the face of declarations by Iraqi officials. 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." The report also reveals that Iran is "continuing to assist the regime in Damascus by sending trucks overland via Iraq" as well.

In early September, U.S. officials revealed they had been asking Iraq about the flights, with then-Senator John Kerry threatening a review of U.S. aid to Iraq if the flights were not stopped. Yet American efforts to get the Iraqi government to randomly inspect the flights have been largely rebuffed. An ostensible commitment made in September by Iraq's foreign minister to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that such inspections would take place was little more than a charade. Iraq inspected all of two planes as of late October, one of which was on its way back from Syria after delivering a shipment there. No weapons were found, possibly because American intelligence reports reveal that Iraqi officials warned the Iranians when the inspections would take place.

Although charges regarding such operations aren't new, the report alleges that the scope of them is far more extensive and far more coordinated than previously acknowledged, due in large part to an agreement forged between senior officials from both Iraq and Iran. Thus, as the New York Times puts it, the "air corridor over Iraq has emerged as a main supply route for weapons, including rockets, antitank missiles, rocket-propelled grenade and mortars" on their way to Syria.

Ali al-Moussawi, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's media adviser, dismissed the report's findings. "Iraq rejects baseless allegations that it allows Iran to use its airspace to ship arms to Syria," he said. "The prime minister has always called for a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict and ... the need for a ban on any state interfering in Syria whether by sending arms or helping others to do so."

Interviews conducted by the Times with administration, military and congressional officials, most of whom requested anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, say otherwise. “The abuse of Iraqi airspace by Iran continues to be a concern,” an American official said. “We urge Iraq to be diligent and consistent in fulfilling its international obligations and commitments, either by continuing to require flights over Iraqi territory en route to Syria from Iran to land for inspection, or by denying overflight requests for Iranian aircraft going to Syria.” Furthermore, an Iraqi official, who also requested anonymity because he feared Iraqi government retaliation, claimed that some government officials favor Iranian intervention in Syria. As a result of those sentiments, efforts to address U.S. concerns have been minimal.

None of this should surprise. Obama's decision to bring American troops home without leaving a large enough stabilizing force behind was publicly portrayed as a triumph by the president. In a speech given on October 21, 2011, Obama talked about bringing the war in Iraq "to a responsible end--for the sake of our national security and to strengthen American leadership around the world." Yet as the New York Times revealed at the time, "some top American military officials were dismayed by the announcement, seeing it as the president’s putting the best face on a breakdown in tortured negotiations with the Iraqis."

Yet is was not merely a breakdown in those negotiations that were completely mishandled. According to officials interviewed by the Times, "the arguments of two White House officials, Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser, and his deputy, Denis McDonough, prevailed over those of the military" with regard to deciding the number of troops that would remain behind. That decision was based on intelligence assessments that Iraq was "not at great risk of slipping into chaos in the absence of American forces."

Yet when American troops withdrew, Iran began taking advantage of the reality that Iraq has no air force, and is incapable of controlling its own airspace. They began shipping weapons and military personnel to Syria almost immediately. Facing pressure from America, Iraq managed to get Iran to stop the flights last March, when Baghdad was preparing to host a summit of Arab nations. Obama kept up the pressure with an April 3 phone call to Maliki, emphasizing that the flights should not be resumed. Yet when a high-ranking member of Assad's government was killed in a bombing last July, Iran resumed the flights. They continued to do so despite two more efforts made by administration officials to persuade Maliki. One was a phone call made by Biden to Maliki in August, the other a face-to-face meeting between Maliki and deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough in October. Neither effort gained any traction.

American intelligence efforts regarding the aforementioned collusion between Iran and Iraq officials on inspections have centered on Hadi al-Amiri, Iraq’s minister of transportation, who reportedly has close ties with the Iranians. Amiri denied the allegations, even as he remained defiant. “This is untrue," he insisted. "We are an independent country and our stance is clear. We will search whichever plane we want, whenever we want. We will not take orders.” Nasir Bender, the head of civil aviation in Iraq also insisted that there was no evidence of collusion, even as he offered a dubious excuse to explain why only two planes had been subject to inspection. “We can’t search every plane because there are so many heading to Syria,” he said. “It would be a big waste of money. Each plane we take down we must refill with fuel.”

That's assuming they can get Iranian cooperation in the first place. American intelligence reveals that, on at least one occasion, an Iranian aircraft ignored a request to land made by the Iraqi government, likely because there was something worth hiding on board.

The Western intelligence report cites two specific planes, an Iran Air plane with the tail number EP-ICD, and Mahan Air's EP-MNE, as being involved in arms shipment to Syria. They are two of the 117 aircraft blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department in September. Yet such blacklisting is largely toothless, with Treasury noting that they do nothing more than "make it easier for interested parties to keep track of this blocked property, and more difficult for Iran to use deceptive practices to try to evade sanctions."

The foot-dragging by the Maliki government is motivated by calculations broader than pleasing or displeasing the Obama administration. Maliki’s Shi'ite-dominated regime might be indirectly threatened by the fall of Assad in that it could encourage Iraq's Sunni Muslim and Kurdish factions to challenge it. Maliki is already dealing with massive protests by Sunnis who believe they have been marginalized by his government. A victory of largely Sunni rebels over Assad--who is supported by Shi'ite Iran--might provide the spark for a full scale civil war in Iraq. Terrorist activity remains a problem as well: attacks with significant numbers of casualties have been perpetrated on a monthly basis ever since American troops were withdrawn in December 2011.

Thus, Obama's chickens are coming home to roost. No doubt the administration would like Americans to assume that they did the best they could to get an extension from the Iraqi government to keep forces in the country. Yet it remains a fact that the failure to do so worked out just fine for a president whose "core commitment" was the complete withdrawal of American forces from Iraq by the end of 2011--a commitment frequently mentioned during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Not mentioned during the campaign? American ties to Iraq have been prematurely and unnecessarily weakened, even as Iranian influence grows stronger. The Obama administration has been reduced to carping from the sidelines while Iran exploits Iraqi airspace with impunity to arm their satellite regime in Syria. Iraq itself may be destabilizing, a reality that would betray the decades-long efforts of American soldiers and the thousands of lives spent in the process.

The Obama administration, the Democratic Party and the mainstream media have convinced a majority of Americans that not only withdrawing from Iraq, but getting out of the Middle East in general, is a good idea. What they fail to mention is who will step into the ensuing power vacuum. Iran, an apocalyptic regime with ambitions of imposing a worldwide caliphate by any means necessary, is undoubtedly willing to do so.

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