Iraq and Syria's alliance strengthens but questions remain as militias control border

Ties between Baghdad and Damascus will deepen following Assad's re-integration into Arab League

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad with Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein in Baghdad on Sunday. Reuters
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Iraq is one of Syria’s closest allies in the Arab region, with relations further cemented by Damascus's return to the Arab League last month, experts told The National on Wednesday.

Baghdad was the first stop for Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on Sunday, following Damascus’s emergence from years of diplomatic isolation.

Mr Mekdad spoke to Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein on the need to combat illegal drugs trade, ensure the safe return of Iraqi and Syrian refugees and provide humanitarian aid.

Iraqi foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Al Sahaf told The National that stability in Syria reflects on both Iraq and the rest of the region.

“We have been pushing for the return of Damascus for years back into the Arab League and Baghdad was one of the initiators for this,” he said. “We will continue to work together.”

For years, Iraq has struggled to create a coherent foreign policy with any of its neighbours, but senior Iraqi officials, even throughout the conflict in Syria, continued relations with President Bashar Al Assad’s regime, said Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq initiative at Chatham House in London.

Ties between Baghdad and Damascus “have always been there”, Mr Mansour told The National. And after Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League, “certainly Baghdad is one of its closest allies as a neighbour especially”, he said.

Despite Syria's civil unrest, Iraq remained an ally of Damascus throughout the wider Arab boycott, never severing relations and maintaining close co-operation.

This was seen through the fight against ISIS extremists when they took over large swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Members of the Iraqi forces near the Iraqi-Syrian border in 2017. AFP

On May 7, the Arab League voted to readmit Syria after its suspension in 2011 over Mr Al Assad’s brutal repression of pro-democracy protests that later devolved into an all-out war.

Baghdad, at the time, had abstained from the vote that resulted in Damascus’s suspension.

Syria’s best relations with the Arab world has been with Iraq, Sajad Jiyad told The National.

“Al Assad is grateful for that relationship with Baghdad and his position has changed tremendously. Pre-2010, there was many tensions over suicide bombers crossing in, as well as Al Qaeda and ISIS operatives,” said Mr Jiyad, who is based in Baghdad and a fellow at the Century Foundation.

“But those days are over,” he said.

Closer security ties

The sides share share a 600km desert border that has continued to see militant activity even years after the defeat of ISIS.

“The control of the Syrian border is extremely important to Iraqis. They cannot rest and always worry about what is coming across the border,” Mr Jiyad said.

Drug trafficking has also proliferated in past years, with the trade of the amphetamine-like drug Captagon exploding in the region, much of it across the Syria-Iraq border.

“The size of drugs that has been captured is massive by Iraqi authorities and Iraq is pushing to crack down on the drug industry.”

Mr Mansour said the sides have historically had problematic relations on the border.

“It has been an on-off type of relationship and the drug issue would highlight that,” he said.

Iraqi authorities have seized a lorry carrying three million Captagon pills at Al Qaim, a town on the Iraqi-Syrian border.

The area has long been a stronghold of Iran-backed Iraqi militias, who also control the town of Albu Kamal on the Syrian side of the border, using the area to store and move weapons.

“There’s been reports that Al Qaim has been a big hub for drug trade and of course both states have counter drug policy, but it’s a fragmented relationship,” Mr Mansour said.

In recent months, Iraqi security forces have intensified narcotics operations with several high-profile drug seizures reported.

Mr Jiyad said Baghdad stands to gain a lot if it has a stable neighbouring Syria and there is a lot of threat if instability increases.

Updated: June 07, 2023, 1:44 PM