A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Unacknowledged Alliance?: How Direct a Role Did Iran Play in Lifting the Siege of Amerli?

Officially, the two month siege of the Shi‘a Turkmen town of Amerli was lifted due to  joint operation involving US airstrikes supporting Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga. The US acknowledges that Iraqi Shi‘ite militia also played a role in Amerli,

And some of those militias are groups that had been "disbanded" until earlier this summer, when then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on thm for help against ISIS. including some that the US considered hostile when it was in Iraq, such as the Badr Army and the ‘Asaib Ahl al-Haq. These militias are allied with and presumably funded and trained by Iran.

But as Scott Lucas notes, Iran's role may be more direct than that. A Reuters report yesterday describing the relief of Amerli and the nearby town of Suleiman Beg:
The scenes in Amerli and the surrounding area of Suleiman Beg offered a window into the teamwork among Kurdish fighters, the Iraqi army and Shi'ite militias and into Iran's role in directly assisting their campaign against Islamic State (IS) forces
An Iranian adviser to Iraqi police was spotted on the road near Amerli and Kurdish officers spoke of Iranians advising Iraqi fighters on targeting the Islamists . . 
The influence of Iran was evident in Suleiman Beg. With Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which is funded by Iran and recognizes Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as its spiritual guide, were two men who spoke Farsi and dressed in beige uniforms different from their colleagues' green camouflage.
Asked if he was Iranian, one of the Farsi speakers said: "We are liberating Suleiman Beg.
Asked if the Iraqis' could have made their recent gains without Iranian support, he answered: "No."
By a convoy of armored police vehicles, a man speaking Farsi described himself as coming from Iran and said he was there to help with training police.
A peshmerga commander in Suleiman Beg acknowledged the part played by Iranians in the assault on Islamic State positions. "The Iranians had a role in this. They supplied weapons and helped with the military planning," he said on condition of anonymity.
"They trained the Shi'ite forces. There are Iranians here in another base: three or four of them. They are guiding the peshmerga in firing heavy artillery. They don't speak Kurdish - they have a translator."
On Saturday, a senior member of the Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told Reuters the Iraqi military, Kurds and Iranian advisers had joint operation centers.
Earlier, Iran had acknowledged sending some troops across the border temporarily in Diyala Province, with some reports suggesting this included M-60 tanks. The Kurdistan Regional Government has acknowledged receiving arms from Iran without specifying the naure, and there are several unconfirmed reports of direct clashes between Iranian Pasdaran and ISIS, though officially only the presence of "advisers" is confirmed.

In July, London's International Institute of Strategic studies reported that Iraq's newly-delivered Su-25 ground attack aircraft still carried Iranian tail codes.

War always makes for strange bedfellows; and it is unsurprising that neither the US nor Iran wants to publicize any coordination (even if carried out through Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish intermediaries), but the idea of US airstrikes providing ground support for Iranian advisors or actual troops is still a reminder of how much the threat of  ISIS is transforming regional alignments. Iran and Saudi Arabia are mellowing their feud, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has offered to visit the Kingdom. 

And last week we noted that the US is also underplaying the role played by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), The Kurdish rebels in Turkey, in the relief of the Yazidis on Jabql Sinjar, presumably because the PKK is still on the US terrorist list.

But it is also unlikely that these quiet instances of cooperation will be openly acknowledged, and if the US does expand its airstrikes to Syria, no cooperation with regime forces is likely to be acknowledged.

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