Iraqi Skies Are Main Corridor for Russian, Iranian Arms Lifts to Syria
US complaints about Iran being allowed to use Iraqi air space to deliver arms and military personnel to Syria have fallen on deaf ears in Baghdad. This month, Russia won the same privilege.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's exclusive military and intelligence sources report that on Oct. 10, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed two military accords in Moscow: One covered a $4.1 billion arms transaction for the sale of Russian arms; the second, a secret military protocol, opened up Iraqi airspace to Russian civilian and military over-flights to Syria, including planes chartered for this purpose.
By these transactions, Putin won a solid military foothold in Baghdad, a profitable arms deal and the resumption of certain military supplies to Damascus after a three-month interruption. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 556 of Sept. 7: Moscow Leaves Assad High and Dry: Russian Early Warning Stations Shut Down in Syria, Missile Defense Systems Recalled).
Putin’s deal with Iraq recovered some of the Middle East ground lost to Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed nearly two decades ago.
Turkey tricked into downing a Syrian aircraft
At the same time, Putin decided to withhold from Bashar Assad heavy hardware like tanks, advanced anti-aircraft missiles, fighter jets and helicopters, our military sources report. He is only sending the ammunition the Syrian army needs to keep its helicopters, tanks and artillery operational.
This information was relayed by US informants to Ankara. On October 10, shortly after Putin and Maliki signed their accords, the Turkish air force was ordered to force down in Ankara a Syrian commercial flight bound for Damascus from Moscow. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was so sure he would catch a Russian military cargo heading for Syria red-handed, that he rushed to announce the presence of ammunition requiring a Turkish security check of the plane.
But the check failed to turn up a single shell or bullet. It was only after the aircraft was released to continue its flight to Damascus that Ankara realized it had been tricked. Russia had leaked false intelligence that the Russian flights carrying ordinance would transit Turkish skies, when they were in fact to be routed through Iraqi air space.
Moscow contracts arms deals with all parties
There are wheels within wheels behind Russian arms trade in this part of the world.
In Iraq for instance, Putin has had no qualms about supplying two sides of the board.
On their way to Iraq by the end of the year will be the first batches of 30 Russian MI-28 attack helicopters worth $2 billion and 42 Pantsir short-to-medium range surface-to-air missiles and anti-air artillery worth another $2.3 billion.
Baghdad has an option for adding MiG29 fighter jets and armored vehicles to its Russian shopping cart.
The Iraqi army will also receive special Russian gear designed for mountain combat in terrain such as Kurdistan, as well as equipment for desert warfare in places like the Syrian border regions with northwestern Iraq, or even Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to the south.
Moscow is fully aware that letting Iraq get its hands on these types of weaponry and equipment in substantial quantities directly counteracts the Obama administration’s plans for setting up a self-ruling Kurdish enclave in Syria on similar lines and structure to the KRG, the Kurdish Regional Republic of northern Iraq.
Bracketing the two Kurdish entities together would form a continuum and facilitate the creation of a Greater Kurdistan spanning the vast oil-rich spaces ranging from the Syrian-Turkish border in the west to the Iraqi-Iranian border in the east.
But Putin and his arms industry were perfectly willing to approve the sale to Iraqi Kurdistan, the KRG, of attack helicopters capable of repelling Iraqi military assaults, while at the same time selling Baghdad Pantsir anti-air missiles and artillery which can shoot down the Kurdish army’s Russian helicopters.
The profit motive clearly dominates Moscow’s arms sales policies – even more than strategic benefits.
Iraq’s Russian arms stock may be available to Assad’s army
Shortly after Putin wound up his deals with Iraq, Russian chartered flights were winging toward Damascus over Iran and Iraq, loaded with ammunition for use against Syrian rebels.
Russian merchant ships putting into Syrian ports provided a second route of delivery.
In addition, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that Iran is operating a busy air corridor bringing Iranian combat personnel, weapons, replacement parts and ammunition to Syria. This week alone, five large transports touched down in Syria with these items.
On Oct. 22, President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney sparred in Florida over whether America should have kept some troops in Iraq after its withdrawal. As they spoke, US diplomats in Baghdad were being rebuffed in their efforts to persuade the Maiiki government to close Iraqi skies to Iranian flyovers with military goods for sustaining the Assad regime.
In the debate, Obama was still speaking out strongly against arming the Syrian rebel fighters with anti-air and anti-tank missiles. In the region, he was overtaken by the above transactions: As we shall see in the next item on Turkey, Assad’s army is being supplied with heavy weapons and ordnance by Iran and Russia. And the Shiite-led government in Baghdad is stocking up on Russian arms that would be available for replenishing Assad’s army at short notice in an emergency.