The Iraqi air force sortied high-tech F-16 fighter jets armed with laser-guided bombs to strike suspected Islamic State forces near the town of Al Shaddi in eastern Syria on April 19, signalling a major escalation of Baghdad’s war on ISIS.
The cross-border raid, at least the second of its type since February 2017, risked driving a wedge between Baghdad and the Syrian, Iranian and Russian governments in their overlapping efforts to defeat ISIS — and inspired some deft diplomacy on the part of senior Iraqi leaders and the Iraqi military.
Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool told Reuters that Baghdad coordinated the air strike with Damascus. The same day as the raid, Iranian defense minister Amir Hatami met with Iraqi, Syrian and Russian military officials at a joint headquarters in Baghdad to discuss intelligence-sharing.
But the U.S.-led task force in Iraq and Syria said it helped Iraqi officials pick their targets. “The operation was planned and executed by the Iraqi Joint Operations Command with intelligence support from the coalition,” Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve stated in a press release.
Baghdad often struggles to balance the competing demands of its allies and Iraq’s neighbors as it continues to battle ISIS militants who swept through the country’s northwest desert in the summer of 2014. In one particularly controversial incident, the Iraqi army transferred U.S.-supplied M-1 tanks to Iran-backed militias fighting alongside Iraqi forces against ISIS.
The militias used at least one of the tanks to attack U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. Washington demanded that Iraq take back the tanks — and then cut off American maintenance for the M-1s. The end of U.S. support effectively sidelined Iraq’s most sophisticated ground combat vehicles.
The April 19 raid, by contrast, was a triumph for an air arm that the U.S. military destroyed during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and then spent billions of dollars rebuilding. The F-16s Iraq sent into Syria were built in the United States and paid for in part by U.S. government loans. The jets’ pilots trained in Arizona with the U.S. Air National Guard. The bombs they dropped were American-made GBU-12 laser-guided models.
“This operation highlights the capabilities of Iraq’s armed forces to aggressively pursue Daesh and to maintain their country’s internal security,” the coalition told The Daily Beast, using a slang term for ISIS.
The trick for Baghdad was to leverage its made-in-America air force and the coalition’s sophisticated intelligence and targeting apparatus — which includes satellites, drones and spotters on the ground — while also assuring the Syrians, Russians and Iranians that Iraq isn’t just an extension of Western military operations in the region.
On April 14, U.S., French and British warships and planes struck suspected chemical-weapons sites in Syria, in retaliation for a gas attack on a rebel enclave near Damascus. Syria’s foreign ministry called the strikes “barbaric aggression.” The Iraqi foreign ministry warned that the retaliatory attacks “could have dangerous consequences, threatening the security and stability of the region.”
Despite the nod toward regional unity and the strong rebuke of Western unilateralism, Iraq probably bombed ISIS in Syria without first seeking Syria’s permission. “I strongly doubt they would compromise their operations by announcing these to Damascus in advance,” said Tom Cooper, an aviation expert and author.
“The Iraqis certainly communicated with the Assad regime only after hitting the target in order to ensure that there was no violation of sovereignty,” Arnaud Delalande, a military expert with close ties to Iraqi forces, told me.
Delalande said his air force sources described the Baghdad-Damascus coordination as a “facade.” The Iraqi air force and the office of Iraq’s prime minister did not respond to separate requests for comment.
The U.S.-led coalition downplayed reports of military coordination between Baghdad and Damascus. “Syria is an extremely complex environment with many competing forces on the ground,” a coalition spokesperson told me. “It should not be surprising that anyone conducting cross-border strikes in that region would take steps to ensure the safety of the operation and to avoid any unintended consequences.”