New York // Secret flights of military aid from Iran to Syria, revealed this week in The National, will be a part of talks today between US president Barack Obama and Nouri Al Maliki, the Iraqi premier.
The National reported on Monday that at least three flights a week of men and weapons were landing in Damascus from Tehran.
The US wants Mr Al Maliki to do more to intercept inside Iraqi airspace shipments headed to Syria.
“We had a pretty frank discussion with the Iraqis about the situation in Syria,” a senior US official said of a meeting on Wednesday between US vice president Joe Biden and the Iraqi delegation.
“They are really focused on the Al Qaeda networks that are coming from Syria into Iraq, and we have continually discussed with them the situation of the Iranian overflights.”
Mr Al Maliki said yesterday that terrorists “got a second chance” to thrive in Iraq, largely after the re-emergence of extremist fighters in Syria.
“We don’t support either the regime or the opposition in Syria. Won’t equip either with weapons. We want a peaceful solution,” he said at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.
While Tehran has acknowledged that Iranian military advisers are assisting the Syrian military, they have denied reports of providing troops or weapons.
Since the start of the Syrian uprising against president Bashar Al Assad’s government, US secretaries of state have pushed Mr Al Maliki to take action to stop arms shipments by Iraq’s ally Iran, which Baghdad so far has largely failed to do.
Even as US officials claim Iraq has increased inspections of flights bound for Syria, “this remains an issue of urgent concern and regular diplomatic engagement”, a state department official said.
“Senior US officials in both Washington and Baghdad continue to press Iraqi officials at the highest levels to ensure that no weapons cross Iraqi territory or airspace to supply the Asad regime.”
But Iraqi officials say they have no ability to force Iranian planes to comply with demands to land without the air defence systems and F-16 fighter jets that they bought from the US but have still not been delivered.
The White House official admitted that without such systems, Iraq does not have “sovereign control” of its own airspace, but said the F-16 sale is “generally on track”, adding, “it obviously has bumps on the road, as anything as complicated as this does”.
There has been criticism of Mr Al Maliki by senior members of the Senate defence and foreign affairs committees.
The bipartisan group sent a letter to Mr Obama timed with the Iraqi visit, which accused Mr Al Maliki of pulling Iraq back towards a sectarian civil war.
Iraq’s military inability to stop Iranian planes is compounded by Iran’s vast influence in Iraq along with a lack of will, analysts said.
“Iran exerts a lot of influence on Iraq and I don’t think the US has sufficient leverage to get them to cross Iran on this,” said Loren White, an independent researcher working on Syria for the Atlantic Council think tank’s Rafik Hariri Centre.
“They do token searches of planes once they’ve warned Iran. They do the bare minimum to keep the US off their back.”
While Iran considers keeping Mr Al Assad in power and a physical link with Hizbollah an existential necessity, Iraq is increasingly viewing the Syrian conflict in similar terms.
Al Qaeda’s increasingly powerful affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has added to the unrest in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, which borders Syria’s rebel-held east.
“They’re very concerned about Anbar province, and they’d like to see Assad take over more control of the country,” Mr White said. “And if that happens with Iranian arms, so be it.”
Iranian military personnel and senior officers, who have deep operational experience from both the Iran-Iraq war and the insurgency against the US occupation of Iraq, are also crucial for the Assad regime’s war effort.
“The largest aircraft that the Iranians could be using is an Il-76, which can carry 50 tonnes max,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor for IHS Jane’s.
“So the Iranian flights are not particularly significant when it comes to keeping the Syrians in ammo.
“That said, the Iranians are supplying significant force multipliers, including specialist personnel and trainers and intelligence gathering equipment, including communications interception systems and UAVs.”