SDF, Iraqi forces ‘coordinating’ border security ahead of IS downfall

AMMAN: United States-backed Iraqi and Kurdish-led Syrian forces are “coordinating” security against remaining Islamic State (IS) contingents along Syria’s northeastern border with Iraq, Kurdish military sources told Syria Direct on Monday.

Commanders from both the Iraqi army and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) met on Sunday within the border zone between northeastern Syria and neighboring Iraq to “consult on coordinating” border security amid waning Islamic State presence there, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told Syria Direct. He called it “the first meeting of its kind” between the two forces.

Sunday’s meeting appears to be a preview of what post-IS security measures could look like, including possible shared military posts between the SDF and Iraqi army, as IS loses its last remaining territory in northeast Syria and west Iraq.   

The meeting’s purpose was to “prevent infiltration by Daesh [IS] on either side of the border,” said spokesman Bali. Commanders agreed to set up military observation points along the border, though “there is no timeline” for construction of the outposts, SDF spokeswoman Leilawa Abdullah told Syria Direct from Syria’s eastern Deir e-Zor province.

American Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led anti-IS coalition that provides military support to both the SDF and Iraqi forces, published pictures on Monday via Twitter of commanders from both sides meeting one another in a desert border area.

Sunday’s meeting came as both the SDF and Iraqi army rack up wins against IS on their respective sides of the border.

In Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced “victory” against IS on Saturday, after government forces seized the last remaining stretch of Iraqi-Syrian borderland still under the militant group’s control.

The speech in the Iraqi capital came more than three years after IS first swept across Syria and much of western Iraq, establishing a vast self-declared caliphate that stretched from rural Aleppo to Mosul and enforced a strict, puritanical interpretation of Islam.

But today, after a series of major offensives by international and local forces, IS territory in Iraq and Syria has been reduced to isolated pockets.

Most recently, the Islamic State has lost thousands of kilometers of territory in Syria’s eastern Deir e-Zor province since September as separate offensives by the SDF and Syrian government troops sweep through the oil-rich province.

Today, SDF forces are battling for control of a roughly 4,000-square-kilometer pocket of IS-held desert immediately west of the Syrian-Iraqi border in Deir e-Zor province. 

SDF and Iraqi commanders meet on Sunday in a photo shared by anti-IS coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon. 

The pocket was once at the center of the Islamic State’s oil-rich central heartland, today largely held by the majority-Kurdish SDF.

On Monday, SDF forces were “engaging in cleanup operations” to remove remaining landmines and IS fighters from recently captured villages south of the IS-held pocket, SDF spokeswoman Abdullah told Syria Direct.

So as the Islamic State’s once vast caliphate appears to reach its final days, and its fighters flee the battlefields, what might post-defeat security look like in eastern Syria?

For both SDF and Iraqi forces stationed adjacent to one another along the northern Syrian-Iraqi border, the need for post-IS security means the two sides—who have no apparent history of direct military cooperation—could be poised for at least some form of closer coordination.

The cross-border meeting on Sunday “did not cover the possibility of launching a joint military campaign,” SDF spokesman Bali told Syria Direct. Rather, “what was discussed was how to resist Daesh [IS] attempts at destabilizing the area.”

Cooperation between the two sides would contrast with the Iraqi army’s recent treatment of Kurdish-led forces in nearby Iraqi Kurdistan. In October, Iraqi government forces attacked and later seized the city of Kirkuk from Kurdish peshmerga forces there, days after residents in Iraq’s autonomous northern Kurdistan region voted for independence from Baghdad in a controversial referendum.

But in eastern Syria, SDF spokesman Bali said on Monday that he welcomed potential cooperation with Iraqi forces as “a positive development.”

“We look forward to better relations with all those in our proximity, in order to preserve security and stability,” Bali said. “And we see [Sunday’s meeting] as an implicit recognition of our forces.”

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.