Global Policy Forum

Iraq's Air 'Straits Question'


By Richard Bulliet *

Agence Global
August 9, 2007

For three centuries, down to the end of World War II, Europe's diplomats were troubled by the Straits Question: the waterway linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. The Ottoman Empire controlled the straits -- the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosphorus -- and barred passage to foreign warships. And this effectively prevented Russia from becoming a Mediterranean power by plugging the only outlet for their Black Sea fleet. Today, Iraq's skies pose a new Straits Question. And Iraqi air space is the "plug" for any Iranian air power.

Whatever happens on the ground in Iraq, the fear of a bigger war pitting Iran against Israel or Saudi Arabia continues to loom in the background. And when the Bush administration talks about $20 billion in advanced arms sales (mostly) to Saudi Arabia -- with a counterbalancing $30 billion to Israel -- Iran is the nemesis in the underlying war scenario.

Iraq's airspace separates Iran from the countries to its west as effectively as the Ottoman straits blocked Russia's fleet from entering the Mediterranean. However, Iraq's long-term ability to protect that airspace is negligible without the support of a friend with a first-class air force. So what does "American withdrawal" signify with respect to Iraqi sovereignty and the skies overhead? The original Straits Question persisted for generations. Russia's rulers plotted tirelessly to gain passage from the Black Sea. The Crimean War of the 1850s pitted the Ottomans and their British and French allies against Russia, with the straits as the potential prize. Russia lost. Later, as World War I loomed in 1914, the positioning of German warships in the midst of the straits within gunshot of the sultan's palace pushed the empire into entering the conflict on the German side.

Iraq's air space question may acquire a similar complexity and durability. Iraq and Saudi Arabia are next-door neighbors. Eager to see both governments weather the storms convulsing their region, the United States equips both their air forces. But Iraq gets a handful of spotter planes and helicopters -- nothing that might threaten the coalition occupation forces if it should end up in the wrong hands. The Saudis get top-of-the-line jets and smart bombs with a view to fending off, or attacking, Iran.

Until 1991, Iraq had played an independent role in strategic air calculations. Then came the overwhelming television images: Kurds fighting for freedom from Saddam's tyranny, and Kurdish refugees trudging toward the Iranian and Turkish frontiers. How could the victorious Desert Storm coalition not declare a no-fly zone over northern Iraq? Or extend that zone to southern Iraq when Saddam began taking revenge on his rebellious Shi'ite subjects there? This is how Iraq lost sovereign control of half its airspace a decade before the American invasion of 2003. During Desert Storm, Saddam's air force had flown to sanctuary in Iran. The mullahs never returned the planes. The consequence? No more Iraqi air force. And no more effective air defense since after 1998: When Saddam decided to defy the no-fly zones, his anti-aircraft units failed to bring down a single coalition plane.

Now, air sovereignty is the unmentioned subject in the American withdrawal debate. Without stationing a single soldier in Iraq the United States can, and presumably will, maintain total control over Iraq's skies. If Iraq's elected government is to survive, there will be little choice. News reports of tough combat situations against Iraqi insurgents frequently culminate in precision airstrikes. It is hard to visualize Iraqi units winning these fights without having access to such support. And even harder to imagine the United States providing the Iraqi air force with a suitable array of attack aircraft. As far as the insurgency goes, American spotters -- attached to Iraqi army units and taking responsibility for summoning the bombers -- may solve the immediate problem on the ground. But the post-withdrawal struggle for dominance in Iraq will determine the balance of power in the Middle East for decades to come.

Air control is fraught with risks. Will the United States shoot down Iranian helicopters if they come to the aid of an Iraqi Shi'ite government facing defeat by Sunni insurgents? Will it fire on Turkish fighter-bombers if they attack PKK "terrorist" camps in Iraqi Kurdistan? If a Shi'ite government cozies up to Iran more closely than the Saud family can stomach, will American forces retaliate against a Saudi launch of American-supplied precision weapons into Baghdad's Green Zone? In other words, does the United States see itself as asserting more or less permanent dominion over Iraq's "air straits" as a complement to its ground force withdrawal? Probably so. But with that claim will come strategic responsibilities and risks of displeasing allies that go well beyond the issue of who prevails on the ground in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. If Iraq should end up with a firmly installed, and Iran-friendly, Shi'ite government -- originally put in place under Bush's democratization project -- that government will eventually make the question of air sovereignty an international issue.

However benevolent it might seem to have American flyers providing a buffer against a regional air war, the legal justification for usurping Iraq's air sovereignty is weak. If the court of world opinion concludes that America's actions are indistinguishable from raw imperialism, the question of who controls Iraq's "air straits" might reemerge in a more dangerous fashion.

About the Author: Richard Bulliet is Professor of History at Columbia University and author of Islam: The View from the Edge and The Case for Islamo- Christian Civilization.



FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.