While security along the Iraqi-Syrian border has improved with the near defeat of the Islamic State, Baghdad still has it's hands full trying to prevent arms smuggling and attacks by what is left of the terror group.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited the headquarters of the Joint Operations Command in Baghdad on March 31 to take a look at the state of military operations to secure Iraq’s borders. Iraqi security forces are primarily concerned about the 372-mile border between Iraq and Syria. Iraqi border guards regularly fend off Islamic State (IS) attacks, which have recently involved arms smuggling operations into and out of Syria across the shared border.
On March 18, the Directorate of Military Intelligence foiled an operation transporting weapons from Syria to Ninevah. The directorate said in a statement, accompanied by photos, that it had confiscated a vehicle loaded with light weapons, rifles, blasting detonators, anti-tank launchers, machine guns and other weapons in Badush, a village northwest of Mosul. On March 8, security forces interrupted another gun run, this one headed to Afrin from Mosul. Afrin was the site of battles at the time between the Turkish army and its Free Syrian Army allies against US-backed Kurdish forces.
In mid-2012, arms smuggling between Syria and Iraq soared, and the prices for light and medium weapons on the Iraqi black market rose due to increased demand when protests in Syria descended into civil war. The Iraqi government acknowledged that it was aware of the influx of weapons and Iraqi jihadis into Syria to fight regime forces there. The current situation is different from that phase, during which large segments of the Iraq-Syria border were essentially under IS control, one of the factors that led to one-third of Iraqi territory falling into the hands of IS, in June 2014.
Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on terrorist groups who works as a security adviser to several security departments in Iraq, told Al-Monitor, “The situation has changed, and the borders are now in the hands of the security forces.”
Mohammad Ibrahim, head of the Ninevah provincial council’s security committee, told Al-Monitor, “There are some [security] gaps on the border between Iraq and Syria, and IS is using them to smuggle weapons. But the security forces are heavily present on the borders and are working on filling these gaps.”
Ibrahim further said, “Arms are smuggled several times a month into Mosul due to the [porous security] situation in the city and sleeper IS cells. The security forces are conducting raids and searches and are making intelligence efforts to halt the operations.” He also stated firmly, “The only party benefiting from arms smuggling is IS, nobody else.” According to Ibrahim, IS is also transferring weapons into Syria to its fighters who remain there after being defeated and forced out of Raqqa, the group’s former stronghold in that country.
Hashimi seems more optimistic than in the past about the state of security and arms smuggling and denied that smuggling operations are steadily ongoing between Syria and Iraq.
“The borders are now in the hands of the pro-Iraqi government security forces from the Iraqi side,” Hashimi said. “On the Syrian side, the terrorist groups are now far from the … border, and the Syrian borders are under the watch of forces that the US and the international alliance trust.”
At an April 2 press conference, Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji emphasized that better border control is needed in the post-IS era, including use of intelligence, and to this end Iraq is coordinating with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan to secure common borders. Although border control could easily be established with these relatively stable neighbors, Syria is trickier, as no central government force controls the country’s land borders. Rough desert conditions and high elevations further complicate patrolling along the Iraqi-Syrian demarcation.
Hashimi noted that Iraq had dug several border trenches to hinder illegal passage using vehicles. Border control patrols have also been increased to foil IS attacks on security forces stationed along the border and arms smuggling.
It seems accurate to assume that controlling Iraq’s border with Syria will remain a difficult undertaking as long as Syrian security remains unstable.