The Fight for the Northern Iraq-Syria Border

By Michael Knights

Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  He has worked in every Iraqi province and most of the hundred districts, including all the Kurdish areas.

The Iraq-Syria border has emerged in recent months as the hottest piece of real estate in the multi-sided struggle between the Islamic State (ISIS), anti-ISIS fighters, and Iran’s militia proxies. Why is this? I’ve stood on the Iraq-Syrian border many times and it is not much to look at. Empty desert stretches as far as the eye can see along almost all of its 600km length. The border is rarely marked by anything more substantive than an earth berm, which is frequently cut with gaps made by smugglers and terrorists.

To understand the value of the border to the various armed actors, one has to get into the minds of people from the region and see the symbolism of a piece of land that connects Iran to the Mediterranean. In practical terms, such a route could give Iran land access to Lebanese Hezbollah and the Assad regime, which would be very useful in the event that Iran’s allies cannot use airports in Lebanon and Syria during a future war. This is why Iran-backed militia forces on both the Syrian and Iraqi sides of the border have struck out into empty, and largely undefended, desert to mount symbolic “flag-planting” exercises along the border.

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