Iran’s control of Iraq-Syria border unlikely for now

Sunday 16/07/2017
Shifting interests. Iran-backed Iraqi militiamen are seen on Iraq’s border with Syria, west of Mosul. (Reuters)

London - There were fears at the end of May that large parts of the Iraqi-Syrian border would fall under the con­trol of Iran-backed mili­tias from Iraq and Syria but such a scenario now appears unlikely.

Iran-backed Iraqi militias cap­tured several villages from the Is­lamic State (ISIS) west of Mosul and south of Sinjar in Nineveh prov­ince. At the same time, Iran-backed militias in Syria, which support the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, moved towards the coun­try’s border with Iraq.

“The new land route will allow the Iranian regime to resupply its allies in Syria by land instead of air, which is both easier and cheaper,” wrote Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker.

Iraqi militiamen were upbeat about the prospect of this trend continuing, vowing to increase their presence inside Syria along­side other forces supporting the As­sad regime. This pledge, however, has come into doubt as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the fighting of Iraqi forces outside the country’s borders was “unconstitu­tional.” His statement reiterates the official government line that the Iraqi forces are only there to cut off the ISIS route to Syria.

It remains unclear whether Ab­adi will be able to enforce this as Iraqi militiamen have already been involved in the war in Syria. Still, the rhetoric of going into Syria has been toned down.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Iraq’s Shia-majority Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), told al-Ahad TV that Iraqi militiamen who went to de­fend Syria’s holy places are “resist­ance fighters” who did their duties but they are not there under the of­ficial capacity of PMF. “The PMF is an Iraqi security and military insti­tution that works now within Iraq’s borders and it requires permission from the Iraqi government to go outside the Iraqi borders,” said Mu­handis.

Despite the blow ISIS suffered inside Mosul recently, the militants control small areas in Anbar and Kirkuk provinces. This means that the war on ISIS inside Iraq is not over.

On the Syrian side of the border, there are several rival forces look­ing to capture or hold territories currently or previously controlled by ISIS. These include: Iran-backed militias and their allied Russian-backed Syrian Army forces; US-backed Kurdish-led forces known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); US-backed Syrian rebels; and Turkish-backed Syrian forces.

The United States has warned and fired at Iran-backed militias who moved too close to positions held by US-backed anti-ISIS forces. This prevented the Iran-backed mi­litias in Syria from having the con­trol they originally sought on the border with Iraq.

“The viability of linking up across the border, it’s still some­what off,” Aymenn al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the US-based think-tank Middle East Forum, told the website Syria Deeply. “A real link-up would require much more substantial gains for the (Syrian) regime and its allies pushing east.”

Washington has been uncom­fortable allowing Iran to have con­trol of access to strategic positions that would threaten US-backed forces but it is unclear how long the Trump administration will be committed to that policy.

“It is hard to imagine that Wash­ington would want to commit to holding a rebel enclave on the Syrian-Iraqi border indefinitely, against [ISIS], Syrian regime, Irani­an, Iraqi and possibly also Russian resistance,” Aron Lund said on the website “It would be precisely the kind of open-ended policing of a Middle Eastern shat­ter belt that the current US admin­istration has sworn to avoid and which most Americans seem to abhor.”

The Iran-backed Assad regime has the advantage of time and ar­eas liberated from ISIS at the hands of SDF could end up under Syrian government control.

“The Syrian leader may hope that the weak long-term US com­mitment to the Syrian Kurds will make them agree to a power-sharing deal that could eventually, when American influence recedes, force them back into Assad’s em­brace,” wrote Lund.

The SDF is led by militiamen originally from the People’s Pro­tection Units (YPG), which have previously made deals with the Assad regime. “While the SDF has become the [United States’] main ally against ISIS in Syria, the group remains relatively neutral towards the conflict between Assad and Syrian rebels and has at times as­sisted Syrian Army operations,” wrote Tom O’Connor in News­week.

The shifting alliances and inter­ests in Syria and Iraq, however, remain unpredictable and some elements within the SDF are wary of a strong Iranian influence in the region.

“For real control of the border, Iran’s proxies will need to estab­lish permanent bases and logisti­cal arrangements to sustain their forces, on both sides of the border, astride the key trade routes,” wrote Michael Knights on thecipherbrief. com. “This will not be an easy task in the face of competition from the Iraqi government [as opposed to the militias], Syrian Sunni opposi­tionists and the Syrian Kurds.”