Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Who Else Is Violating Iraqi Airspace?

by Micah Zenko
September 26, 2012

Turkish F-16 jets prepare to take off from a military airbase on the southeastern border near Iraq (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters). Turkish F-16 jets prepare to take off from a military airbase on the southeastern border near Iraq (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters).


The Iranian government is reportedly supplying military equipment via Iraqi airspace to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Although Iraq temporarily halted the flights in mid-March at the request of the Obama administration, they resumed in July. Last week, Reuters quoted from an intelligence report from an unnamed country: “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.”

Yet again, the Obama administration has asked Iraq to ban the flights outright, or force them to land and undergo inspections. This would be a relatively simple process, as Iraq requires advance notice of eight business days for flights in its airspace, and mandates that such flights occur within twenty-four hours. Despite such demands, Iraq lacks the political will and the capability—specifically an integrated air defense radar system and robust air force—to establish complete control over its airspace. Yesterday, Lt. Gen Robert Caslen, chief of the Office of Security Cooperation at the U.S. embassy in Iraq, told the New York Times:

“Iraq recognizes they don’t control their airspace, and they are very sensitive to that,” General Caslen said. 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.”

This is an interesting statement from the most senior U.S. military official in Iraq. 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—200720082009, 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.

If, as Caslen claims, Iraqis are aware of and resent the ongoing Turkish incursions into Iraq, they assuredly resented U.S. control of Iraqi airspace. Given the U.S. criticisms of Iraqi unwillingness to curtail Iranian arms and personnel flights headed to the Assad regime in Syria, it is also worth highlighting who else violates Iraqi airspace, and who supports those intrusions.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by Baris

    Some clarification with respect to the Turkish Air Force allegedly invading Iraqi airspace:

    First and foremost, Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, stipulates that the Republic of Turkey has the right to self-defense.
    Secondly, UN Resolution 1373 states that the Iraqi government must co-operate with the Republic of Turkey in order to prevent attacks from its soil into Turkey. Iraq is turning a blind eye to PKK terror bases on it territory. Turkey has the legitimate right to engage in hot pursuit of these terrorists and also to eradicate any terror bases in Iraq.
    Thirdly, with regards to civilian casualties, this is unavoidable. The US at times has killed civilians during anti-terror operations in Pakistan.

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    Chapter VII of the UN Charter nowhere stipulates that the Republic of Turkey, or any government, has the right to self-defense. You made that up.

    Article 39
    The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.

    Regarding UN Resolution 1373, in case you haven’t noticed, Iraq has been a country devastated by US aggression. Its airspace is still dominated by the US which cooperates with Turkey in facilitating illegal aggression by Turkey against Iraq, as described above, bypassing the procedures stipilated in the UN Charter.

    Civilian casualties aqre not “unavoidable” where gross negligence in targeting is concerned. No responsible military leader would claim that. In Afghanistan currently we have the same issue and military leaders have taken strong measures, largely successful, to reduce civilian casualties. They have never said that they are “unavoidable.” That is callous and wrong.

    Bottom line: The UN Charter requires procedural steps to be taken prior to naked aggression is response to terror attacks, which are criminal and not military.

  • Posted by Roj Welat

    Too much misinformation. We are talking about a population of 50 million Kurds, and approximately 30 million lives in Turkey without their basic rights, and their land has been colonized by the state of Turkey with the support of world powers. Tell me now, what the UN and international law says about right to self-defense. Who is doing terror and who is supporting the terror? There is a state terror against the Kurdish people in every area of life of the Kurds. There is a policy of denial, force assimilation and genocide have been practiced and continue to be practice on the Kurds in Turkey. Now, please tell me, what is the UN Charter and international law says for the rights of 30 million kurds living on their ancient land in Turkey, 3-4 million in Syria, 5-6 million in Iran, 5-6 million in Iraq, and at least 4 million scattered in the region, Europe, and world wide? Enough is Enough!!!

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    The UN Charter governs international relations and not domestic relations. That’s why the US puppet Ban Ki-moon is wrong to call for regime change in Syria, and why the UN should not get involved in Turkey’s internal affairs.

    But when the Kurdish problem causes international discord, as it is beginning to, between Turkey Iran Iraq and Syria, with Turkey bombing Iraq, then it becomes a different matter.

  • Posted by Javed Mir

    Kurds have been dispersed in so many countries. Wisdom demands that they should assimilate themselves into these countries instead of wasting human life and human resources. They should make their voice heard in the respective countries through legal and constitutional means.

  • Posted by Baris

    @ Don Bacon- Regarding VII of the UN Charter
    I direct your attention to Article 51 of the UN Charter. Article 51 of the UN Charter clearly recognizes “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence” by anyone. That is, Article 51 does not identify or stipulate the kind of aggressor or aggressors against whom this right of self-defence can be exercised and certainly does not limit the right to self-defence to attacks by States.

    Furthermore, UN General Assembly and Security Council Resolutions, including the “International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings” call for specific actions to be taken by all States and underscore repeatedly that terrorism must be fought by all parties, by all means, at all times, by whomever and against all perpetrators. The PKK is a prescribed terror organisation by the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Spain etc.

    With respect to UN Resolution 1373-
    The fact that Iraq has been devasted by war etc does not negate the validity of UN Resolution 1373, nor does it mean that the governing entity in Iraq can turn a blind eye to terrorists and allow its territory to be used as a staging ground for terror attacks on Turkey.

    No matter how you distort the facts the Republic of Turkey has the legitimate right to self-defense and the legitimate right to eradicate terrorists and their bases under both International Customary Law and International Treaty law, this includes but is not limited to entering into Iraqi airspace.

  • Posted by Jon Sakes

    Turkey cannot enter Iraq’s airspace without permission. Iraq should shot down any plane that dares to enter its airspace.

  • Posted by Kurdish Observer

    @Javed Mir

    How about this solution:

    Since Kurds are scattered on “too many countries” why not create a Kurdish state besides every one of those countries instead of assimilating, huh?

    “reason demands” that Kurds assimilate into another culture because they are the minority, huh? so what you are saying on the flip side is majorities should keep oppressing minorities and eradicating their cultural identity – because “reason demands that”, right?

    Fascist, racist mind! It is not up to reason or whatever you call it that decides the fate of a people, it is the people themselves who have the right to determine their own fate.

    And for your information, Kurds are not scattered on “too many” countries. they are on the same connected, whole homeland called Kurdistan. You can go and look at a map and look at the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran and you will see aha I am talking about. You will see that Kurdistan is one integral whole divided between these countries by superpowers after the world war 1.

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