Recently, the US Congress approved the White House’s plans to sell AH-64 Apache gunships to Iraq. The $6.2 billion deal has come to prominence due to its controversial political-military aspects, that could turn this massive arms procurement project into a double-edged sword for Washington and its allies in the region.
From a skeptical point of view, the main dilemma with regard to providing Iraq advanced arms boils down to Nouri al-Maliki’s close ties with Iran and sectarian and authoritarian stance, as well as his hostility toward the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Clearly, nobody could be perfectly comfortable about the prospects of a military campaign by Baghdad against Irbil to extend the capital’s iron-fist rule into all of Iraq. In this case, from a military standpoint AH-64 attack helicopters would give a critical edge to Maliki’s forces in anti-personnel and anti-armor missions that could render the KRG Pashmarga’s already limited defensive capabilities abortive.
Furthermore, amid the sectarian polarization of the Middle East into the Sunni and Shi’ite blocs, which has loomed large in the prolonged civil war in Syria and is being called the “Islamic 30 Years’ War” by some experts, consolidating the Shi’ite bloc’s Arab champion might fuel tensions and concerns within the Sunni bloc that includes key allies of Washington, such as the Gulf States.
Moreover, the current trends in Iraq’s military modernization could be a growing concern for Turkey too. The focus of Maliki administration is not only securing attack helicopters. In fact, Baghdad is diligently working on enhancing its air defense capabilities through multi-billion dollar deals with Moscow (for Pantsir S-1 systems), as well as with Washington (for Avenger and MIM-23 Hawk systems). Depending on future deployment positions and tactics, the air defense procurements could significantly restrict the Turkish Air Force’s operations in Northern Iraq. For instance, the Russian Pantsir S-1 air defense system was already held responsible for the downing of a Turkish fighter jet by Syria in 2012.
Besides, a controversial F-16 deal is still on the table for the Iraqis. Thus, given lessons learned from Syria, there is no good reason to rule out Baghdad’s military options to use AH-64 gunships against possible Turkish armor and mechanized incursions into northern Iraq, which used to be a regular exercise in the 1990s’ cross-border operations against terror campaign of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Despite all reservations, the pressing danger emanating from al-Qaida affiliates in Syria and Iraq clearly played an important role in Washington’s decision.
Al-Qaida has been cunningly taking advantage of Sunni discontent in Iraq and the power vacuum in Syria.
Notably, the main al-Qaida affiliate in the region, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, gained control of Fallujah, undoubtedly reminding the US strategic community of one of its biggest nightmares during the Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Given the uncertain trajectory of the Syrian Civil War and lack of Iraqi domestic stability, al-Qaida seems to be pushing for the geopolitical upper hand in the heart of the Middle East.
Technically, AH-64 gunships could well suit Baghdad’s counter-terrorism efforts due to attack helicopter operations’ multi-functionality, ranging from close air support for ground units to direct anti-personnel efforts. In this regard, the AGM-114 Hellfire missiles provided by Washington can augment Baghdad’s fight against al-Qaida in conjunction with the AH-64 deal.
Moreover, Baghdad is also procuring Mi-35 attack helicopters from Russia.
In sum, although it is quite early to say that the Saddam-era Iraqi war machine is back in the game, Iraqi military modernization trends demand attention. In the short term, Washington’s capacity-building efforts to promote Baghdad’s ability to confront al-Qaida affiliates is in the best interest of not only Iraq, but also the region.
The al-Qaida threat is real and imminent, and must be addressed swiftly.
On the other hand, analyzing a defense modernization posture is not only about current capabilities and procurements, but trends and future outcomes. Militarily, Iraq plays its hand smartly by balancing Russian and American systems in its inventory.
In this regard, Washington and Moscow seem to be competing for influence on Baghdad’s defense apparatus and dominance in Iraq’s military arsenal.
Politically, the Iranian clout on Baghdad seems to keep being solid as long as the ethno-sectarian fault lines in the Middle East and Iraq remain tense, and Washington’s engagement in the region remains limited.
Therefore, it would be wise to support Iraq in its fight against al-Qaida affiliates, but at the same time, an eye must be kept on Iraq’s developing military posture in order to protect the regional strategic balance in favor of democracies and traditional Western allies in the Middle East.
The author is a faculty member at Girne American University. He also holds a research fellow post at the Istanbul-based independent think-tank EDAM.