Politics

Syrian delegation's visit to Iraq raises concerns of 'Iranian silk road'

By Khalid al-Taie

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A delegation from the Syrian Ministry of Defence meets with Iraqi Ministry of Defence officials in Baghdad on June 13th. The first 'official' visit between the two sides in years has raised alarm in some quarters. [Screenshot from video on Iraqi Ministry of Defence website]

A delegation from the Syrian Ministry of Defence recently visited Baghdad to discuss "security co-ordination and co-operation" with Iraq in the "first declared visit" of Syrian military officials to the country in years.

While the stated purpose of the visit was to discuss border co-operation and the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), some have raised concerns about the underlying motives of the Syrian regime's regional backers.

They see it as an attempt by Iran, a key backer of the embattled Syrian regime, to bolster its influence in Iraq and open up a passage to Syria and the Mediterranean through which it can funnel fighters and arms and expand trade.

In a June 13th statement, the Iraqi Ministry of Defence announced that Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Othman al-Ghanmi had met with a high-level delegation from the Syrian Ministry of Defence.

The statement did not reveal details about the Syrian delegation.

The head of the delegation, who was not named, stressed "the strength of the relationship between the two countries and continued co-operation in the military and other areas", the Iraqi statement said.

During the meeting, officials explored ways to eliminate ISIS, which "requires more co-operation and co-ordination in the field of intelligence exchange and border control" by Iraqi and Syrian forces.

The delegations also discussed "the establishment of a joint operation centre through which co-ordination is made between the two sides", as well as "the latest military developments in Mosul and also the Syrian side".

Iraqi MP Faleh al-Khazali, who serves on the parliamentary security and defence committee, said this visit came after a "visit to Damascus by Iraq's national security adviser [Faleh al-Fayad] earlier this month".

It comes "within the bilateral co-operation between the two countries in the framework of the co-ordination committee formed two years ago", he said.

'Not without a political dimension'

The Syrian delegation's visit was preceded by visits and meetings held between the Iraqi and Syrian sides, Mustansiriya University professor of political science Essam al-Faily told Diyaruna.

But it is considered "the first declared visit of Syrian military officials to Iraq in years", he noted.

The new talks "signify the desire of the two countries to further strengthen their military ties through the establishment of a bilateral operations room to secure the border strip and to track down the (ISIS) cells there", al-Faily said.

But he noted that the visit is not without a political dimension.

"Iraq is intended to be part of the Iranian-Syrian-Russian axis," he said in reference to the current Gulf crisis.

"The (Iraqi) government has confirmed on more than one occasion its refusal to belong to any axis, based on its keenness not to compromise its close alliances with the major powers," al-Faily said.

However, "relations between Baghdad and Damascus have not been cut, at least since 2011", said Iraqi Centre for Strategic Studies researcher Yahya al-Kubaisi.

"Since that time, Iran has been working to draw Iraq into its historic alliance with Syria against the opposing camp in the region, led by Saudi Arabia," he told Diyaruna.

The Syrian delegation’s visit "does not diverge from that context", he said.

Signs of these intentions include the late-2015 announcement of the formation of "an intelligence co-ordination room, or what has come to be known as the four-party alliance" -- including Iran, Syria, Russia and Iraq, he said.

Iranian passage through Iraq

At the end of May, units of the Iraqi popular mobilisation forces (PMF), some of which receive Iranian backing, seized control of a roughly 40-kilometre strip along the border with Syria.

On the other side of the border, the Syrian army and allied militias last week advanced in the south-eastern Syrian desert and reached the Iraqi border.

The recent movements of the PMF, and the advancement of the Syrian regime’s army towards the border with Iraq, "have been a key factor in expediting the visit" of the Syrian military delegation, al-Kubaisi said.

The two sides have been "discussing an enhancement of the joint co-ordination in light of those developments on the ground", he said.

But the meeting has wider regional implications, he explained, stressing that Iran seeks "to turn Iraq into a vital passage for supplying fighters and arms" to the Syrian regime.

"What I call the Iranian Silk Road through Iraq has been clearly revealed, after the PMF's area of influence has shifted towards the border with Syria," he said.

Opening up a route from Iran to the Mediterranean via Iraq is a "strategic Iranian project whose purpose is not only military, but also economic", he said.

"After negotiations on laying a gas export line between Turkey and Iran failed, the latter is looking for a secure outlet for the line that stretches to the Mediterranean," he said, noting that Iran is thinking about the long term.

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