Iraq points to Syrian border threat as ISIS steps up attacks

Abadi declared victory against ISIS in December but said the militants’ presence in Syria remains a danger to Iraq.
Sunday 15/04/2018
An Iraqi security forces member holds a position near Salaheddine province in the western desert bordering Syria, last November. (AFP)
All eyes on Syria. An Iraqi security forces member near Salaheddine province in the western desert bordering Syria, last November. (AFP)

LONDON - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed to prevent infiltration by the Islamic State (ISIS) through the border with Syria as the militants stepped up attacks inside Iraq before the country’s elections in May.

“[ISIS militants] are present in eastern Syria, at the Iraqi border. I will take all necessary measures if they threaten the security of Iraq,” Abadi said.

Abadi said he ordered Iraq’s military command “to lay out all possible plans… to protect Iraqi citizens” from ISIS militants from Syria.

The Iraqi prime minister said he discussed the ISIS border threat with US President Donald Trump. He reportedly has the approval of the Syrian government to carry out military operations on the border with Syria.

“Our plan is to move from fighting terrorism in Iraq to fighting terrorism in the region... We are not trespassing over our border or attacking neighbouring countries,” said Abadi.

Iraqi special forces, however, may be dropped by air into Syria, Hisham al-Hashimi, a government adviser on ISIS, told Reuters. It would not be the first time Iraq became involved in the Syrian situation. Iraqi planes carried out an air strike in Syria last year, in coordination with the US-led coalition and with a green light from Damascus.

Abadi declared victory against ISIS in December but also said the militants’ presence in Syria remains a danger for Iraq.

“The real threat, in all frankness, is the presence of ISIS in Syria. We heard news that they destroyed ISIS (in Syria) — it’s a lie,” said Abadi.

ISIS militants are “paying corrupt people” in Syria to “infiltrate into Iraq and attack its safe towns and citizens,” said Abadi.

ISIS deals in Syria

In addition to intimidation, ISIS is known to resort to bribery or to make deals with its foes, including the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, to get its way.

“The situation in Syria is still a real challenge, which we are focused on. We have moved from fighting terror in Iraq to fighting terror in Syria. We have plans in that regard,” said Abadi.

Although the Iraqi-Syrian border area is safer than it has been at any time since 2014, the chaos in Syria will inevitably affect the Iraqi side.

“It seems accurate to assume that controlling Iraq’s border with Syria will remain a difficult undertaking as long as Syrian security remains unstable,” wrote Omar al-Jaffal on Al-Monitor’s website.

Figures released by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq stated that 104 Iraqi civilians and policemen were killed in acts of terrorism, violence and armed conflict in Iraq in March. The numbers remain lower than the 2014 peak when ISIS was in control of vast areas in Iraq.

ISIS militants have staged several attacks in April in areas predominately inhabited by Sunni Arabs. At least 16 people were killed in a bombing that targeted funerals in the northern Iraqi village of Asdira, near Sharqat.

The funerals were for five Sunni members of the Shia-led Popular Mobilisation Forces who were killed in an attack in the region four days earlier.

The funeral bombings were less than a week after an ISIS attack that killed four people and injured seven others at the headquarters of a political party in Anbar province during election campaigning.

The funeral attack was the deadliest in Iraq since a double suicide bombing killed 31 people in Baghdad in January.

In an apparent bid to boost morale, ISIS militants restated their pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose whereabouts − or even if he is indeed alive − remain unknown.

“To infuriate and terrorise the infidels, we renew our pledge of loyalty to the commander of the faithful and the caliph of the Muslims, the mujahid Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Hussaini al-Qurashi, may God preserve him,” ISIS militants said in a statement posted on social media.