Iraq and Syria Team Up to Take on Islamic State
Baghdad's war strategy is becoming increasingly independent of the United States
Syrian warplanes carried out a series of strikes on Islamic State targets in Raqqa and along the Syrian-Iraqi frontier earlier in April 2017. Intelligence gathering from a Russian-Iranian-Iraqi and Syrian coalition enabled the aircraft to locate their targets.
Formed in September 2015, this coalition has command centers in both Baghdad and Damascus. Its Iraqi operations room is in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
“We find it extremely useful,” Iraqi M.P. Hakim Al Zamili, the head of the parliamentary and defense committee, said at the time. “The idea is to formalize the relationship with Iran, Russia and Syria.”
“We want a full-blown military alliance.”
These recent Syrian strikes are another strong indication of Iraq’s cooperation with Syria and its allies. In late February, the Iraqi Air Force carried out its first independent air strikes beyond its own borders since Saddam Hussein’s rule when it bombed I.S. militants in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province.
Iraq carried out the attack in coordination with Damascus, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi. He also said Iraq may well carry out future attacks beyond its borders against the terror group.
Back in June 2014, shortly after the Islamic State seized Mosul—Iraq’s second-largest city—Syrian warplanes attacked militant targets in the border town of Al Qaim inside Iraq’s western Anbar region. Nouri Al Maliki, then Iraq’s prime minister, said Iraq welcomed the strikes “because this group targets both Iraq and Syria.”
“But we didn’t make any request from Syria,” he went on to claim. “They carry out their strikes and we carry out ours. The final winners are our two countries.”
Today, the Syrian regime claims one of its aims in the near future is to continue advancing eastward toward the Islamic State-held cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
The latter contains an isolated garrison of Syrian soldiers who have bravely stopped the Islamic State from conquering the entire city. Linking up with the enclave would give Damascus a sizable foothold in its east, which it has not had for a long time.
Such a move is in Iraq’s immediate security interests. The Iraqi-Syrian border is a lengthy and relatively porous frontier, and so long as the Islamic State continues to have a significant presence in Syria’s east—Deir Ezzor in particular—it can threaten Iraq by launching incursions into its largest, but sparsely populated, Sunni Arab-majority Anbar province.
Given the mutual interests in routing the Islamic State from Deir Ezzor, it’s likely Iraqi-Syrian military coordination there will increase. Iraq’s newly delivered F-16 fighter-bombers could continue flying strikes in the area in support of a Syrian ground offensive while coordinating with Russian and Syrian warplanes.
Washington refuses to coordinate any of its operations in Syria with Damascus. The Islamic State forced the regime’s soldiers out of the entirety of Raqqa province in August 2014 following the siege of the Tabqa air base. The United States began its air strikes against the Islamic State in that northeastern region the following month.
U.S. aircraft have even avoided bombing Islamic State militants advancing on Syrian forces in the ancient city of Palmyra in May 2015—reportedly to prevent anyone, especially America’s Saudi and Turkish allies, from accusing the U.S. military of working with Damascus. The Islamic State subsequently captured the city and executed Syrian soldiers in Palmyra’s iconic Roman amphitheater en masse.
In September 2016, U.S.-led coalition aircraft killed scores of Syrian soldiers in a series of air strikes in Deir Ezzor. The U.S. military claimed it misidentified the soldiers as Islamic State militants. These strikes briefly enabled the Islamic State to advance against the Syrian army’s positions before Russian and Syrian air strikes helped drive the militants back.
A possible Syrian route of advance toward the isolated garrison at Deir Ezzor. Map via syria.liveuamap.com
The incident caused tensions between the Americans and the Russians in Syria—who had just the week before implemented a temporary ceasefire that completely collapsed shortly after this incident—and aptly demonstrated the risks of bombing Deir Ezzor’s urban environs without coordinating with regime forces there.
U.S. efforts to rout the Islamic State from parts of Deir Ezzor haven’t yielded much success. The United States trained up Syrian fighters in Jordan, the New Syrian Army (NSyA), solely to fight the Islamic State, but Russian aircraft controversially bombed their Al Tanf base near the Jordanian border in June 2016.
The following month U.S. aircraft suddenly withdrew support from the NSyA in the middle of an offensive against an Islamic State-held town in Deir Ezzor province in order to bomb hundreds of militants fleeing Fallujah in neighboring Iraq.
To be sure, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces advanced into parts of Deir Ezzor province in February 2017 as part of an ongoing U.S.-backed operation to seize Raqqa. However, that group’s primary focus is not directed at Deir Ezzor city for the time being.
Given this backdrop it is possible the Syrian regime, supplemented by Iranian-backed Shiite militias such as Hezbollah, will advance into Deir Ezzor, situated about 120 miles from their current positions in Homs province across a relatively sparsely populated area, in the near future.
There is also intermittent talk of Iraqi Shiite Hashd Al Shaabi paramilitaries entering Syria to continue their fight against the Islamic State after the Battle of Mosul comes to a conclusion. Iraqi Shiites have traveled to Syria to fight alongside the regime since the early stages of the war there.
The fact that American-made IQAF F-16s may well support an upcoming Syrian regime offensive into Deir Ezzor, alongside Russian air power, demonstrates that Baghdad’s foreign policy is becoming increasingly independent of Washington’s in the region, and may perhaps even be at fundamental odds with it in certain areas.