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Iraq Goes On The Offensive In Syria
Iraqi government forces wave their national flags on March 10, 2016 after retaking the town of Zankura, northwest of Ramadi, from the Islamic State in Anbar province. (Moadh Al-Dulaimi/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraq Goes On The Offensive In Syria

Baghdad has conducted numerous strikes targeting the Islamic State along the shared border

The Iraqi army on Saturday launched an air assault on a position in neighboring Syria, killing some 45 Islamic State fighters. Iraqi F-16 fighter jets destroyed three houses, interconnected via a trench, in the town of Hajin, just across the border in eastern Syria. High-ranking figures in the terrorist group were apparently using the premises for a meeting.

In a statement, the Iraqi military claimed that those killed in the strike included the Islamic State’s “deputy war minister;” one of its “media emirs;” the personal courier of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; and its chief of police.

Islamic State—which has been largely defeated in Iraq—still poses a threat along the frontier with Syria. After losing its so-called caliphate, the terror group has been pushed into isolated pockets from which it continues to carry out attacks and bombings across Iraq.

In trying to eliminate these areas of resistance, the Iraqi military has carried out several airstrikes against ISIS targets since last year, with the approval of the Syrian regime as well as a United States-led coalition.

The assault nevertheless raises questions about Iraq’s long-term strategic aims.

Nathaniel Rabkin, Managing Editor of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political risk newsletter, told The Media Line that there may be an element of national pride involved in the air campaigns. “The Iraqi government wants to show that the military defeat at the hands of Islamic State in 2014—when the terrorist group’s forces were on the rise—has been reversed. The Iraqi army wants to send a message that it is now a force in the region.”

Rabkin added that “because the U.S.-Iraqi security relationship is controversial in Iraq, [Baghdad] is keen to display publicly some of the benefits of that alliance. One benefit is the two-dozen F-16 fighters Iraq has received from the U.S., some of which were used to carry out the strike.”

Ronen Zeidel, an expert on geopolitics at Tel Aviv’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told The Media Line that the latest strike was routine and based on necessity, given the growing incidence of Islamic State members penetrating Iraqi territory.

“The Iraqis are able to inflict very painful blows on ISIS targets from the air with the use of their military intelligence, which is one of the best in the region,” Zeidel related. “But the army still has problems of maintaining control on the ground.”

He attributed this to the fact that the Iraqi Shi’ite militias often used to root out Islamic State fighters “are not as good and effective as the Iraqi air force and military intelligence, and certainly not as [competent as the] counter-terrorism units and army.”

Owen Holdaway, a freelance journalist based in Iraq, told The Media Line that the border area between Iraq’s Anbar Province and Syria’s Deir Ez Zor Province, close to where the strike took place, “has always been difficult to control, even during the time of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.”

The border area, he elaborated, is highly porous and dominated by tribes that have many allegiances beyond the national one. “Tribal affiliation is key out there, and there is a lot of conflict because of it.

“This is where Islamic State’s last main bastion is,” Holdaway stressed. “These factors, as well as the problem of gathering accurate intelligence there, make the area very difficult for the Iraqi army to control.”

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