There were indicators that Israel was taking the lead in the campaign against Iran late last year. Even though the Jewish state faced challenges, such as Russia's presence in Syria, "Israel began to expand its campaign against Iranian-backed militias," said Ceng Sagnic, former coordinator of the Kurdish studies program at the Moshe Dayan Center.
In the last month, four mysterious airstrikes have occurred in Iraq. Political parties there have blamed Israel and held the US responsible. But Iraq's official investigation has not fully determined who carried out the alleged airstrikes. The US has asserted it was not the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. Pro-Iranian groups in Iraq are convinced it was Israel, which forms part of the rising tensions in the region after Israel said it carried out an August 24 airstrike in Syria.
Sagnic's comments are interesting because in January, he penned an article in The Jerusalem Post predicting that Iraqi airspace was "open for Israel to strike Iran." At the time, Israel-Iran tensions were growing because Iranian Quds Force members had launched a surface-to-surface rocket from Syrian territory aimed at the northern Golan Heights in Israel.
"Assuming that Syria will eventually complete the installation of the [defensive system of] S-300 missiles – and master the use of complicated Russian-made radar systems to hunt Israeli fighter jets violating its airspace to strike Iranian targets – Iraq's airspace will continue to remain defenseless against Israel," wrote Sagnic at the time.
A key part of Iran's "land bridge" – a corridor of influence and weapons trafficking that Iran uses to supply Hezbollah and allies via Iraq and Syria – stretches through Iraq. The land bridge in Iraq could be seen as a threat to Israel.
"One should look at the Iranian land bridge to Syria and Iraq: It is not just transferring weapons, but also creating allied militia organizations and routes," Sagnic says today. "Iraq stood out as a fertile ground for Iran to expand its militia capabilities." Sagnic added that "it was not too difficult to guess that the Hashd al-Shaabi (or Popular Mobilization Forces) was within the Israeli radar and that Israel might take steps against it."
"Unlike Syria, there are no air defense systems of Russia or a third party [in Iraq]."
The PMF is a group of mostly Shi'ite militias that are pro-Iranian. "Also, Iraqi air space is open for any advanced nation to carry out airstrikes, unless they are opposed to the US," he says. "Unlike Syria, there are no air defense systems of Russia or a third party, so it was an easier target for Israel to decide upon striking Iranian military installations in Iraq – even more than Syria, where Russians were present and strikes required diplomatic work ahead of time, or afterwards."
Sangic said that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the Iraqi government that Israel might undertake airstrikes in Iraq because militias were out of the control of the central government. They were being used as "hotbeds for the development of an Iranian land bridge from Iran to Lebanon."
But Sagnic said it's not entirely clear what route might be taken to strike in Iraq. A mysterious airstrike in June 2018 against an Iraqi militia that was based in Syria did not go unnoticed in the region. But it was not a message to the Iraqi government, because the "central government that has no control over the militia situation."
Iraq's government today appears weak in the face of these strikes. Is it weaker than in the early 2000s though, when Iraq was occupied by the US?
"It is definitely weaker after the withdrawal of US forces in 2010, which left a political and security vacuum which led to the creation of ISIS," Sagnic said. "The central government is weaker without the boots on the ground of the US."
The US strove to make the Iraqi government strong, including encouraging then prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki's drive to be an Iraqi strongman who was aligned with Iran. The US risked relations with Kurds and Sunni Arabs in Iraq to achieve that.
The airstrikes in July and August of this year have not changed the equation. "Let's underline that the airstrikes strategically and surgically targeted facilities where long-range ballistic missiles were stockpiled according to Iraqi media," Sagnic said.
"Unlike Syria where the locations of Iranian-backed militias are precisely known, due to the proliferation of militia facilities in Iraq, it is hard to determine where to strike. Just around the capital Baghdad we are talking about hundreds of facilities. Technical capability is insufficient to target, so it requires human intelligence."
Iraq's prime minister has sought to incorporate the Shi'ite paramilitaries into the security forces. "But with the airstrikes in recent months, it became apparent that the government was searching for a way to protect the militias by incorporating them into the military, at least on paper," Sagnic said. "The central government might react to prevent further airstrikes by claiming these groups belong to the government."
The larger question now revolves around calls by some in Iraq to remove US forces and to blame the US for the airstrikes.
"The US has been expecting this: A call by the Iraqi parliament for it to withdraw was already on file and is already in the parliament's security commission, waiting for the government to provide locations of US forces so that it could call for them to be removed," he said.
This is a delicate situation. "The US doesn't want to be removed by parliament, and America has an obligation for interests and security in the region to scale back Iranian advances; outsourcing it to Israel could be profitable. It is indirectly outsourcing it to Israel without the US [having to take] any deliberate action."
Does this mean that US forces would require a warning of any airstrikes though?
"I would say that the US government is discussing this and there are those who support the airstrikes," Sagnic said. "And a nine-minute rule is implemented, where the US knows seven to nine minutes before the airstrikes happen."
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.