On January 24, the Syrian-Kurdish forces backed by the US anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition barely repelled a counter-attack carried out by IS militants in the Syrian village of Baghuz Fawqani, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates where the river crosses the Syrian-Iraqi border. The area, which includes most of the low Euphrates Valley, is part of a broader region that has come to be known as “Syraq”, mainly characterized by vast and uncontrolled desert territories. In Syria, these territories encompass the eastern provinces of Deir el-Zor and Hasaka, and extend to part of Raqqa and Homs; in Iraq, they include the Anbar and Nineveh governorates, as well as parts of Salah al-Din, Kirkuk and Diyala. Since 2012, as the Syrian civil war was entering one of its most violent phases and Iraq was going through a worsening socio-political crisis, this area has seen a progressive erosion of both states’ authority and control. At the same time, the constant smuggling of military equipment and fighters in both directions revealed the strategic depth of this area for Sunni opposition groups fighting against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and for Islamic State fighters – then Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) – opposing the Iraqi government. The clearest example of this situation was the destruction of the Syrian-Iraqi border by the Islamic State in 2014, which, with its highly symbolic impact, aimed at invalidating the system stipulated by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, in the name of a broader state entity, (the Islamic State), to be exclusively based on Sunni Islam and open to all Muslims.
At the roots of “Syraq”
The roots of Syraq’s transnational dimension predate the artificial boundaries arbitrarily imposed by European powers’ after the First World War. A thriving commercial exchange between urban centers such as Mosul, the second-largest Iraqi city, and Aleppo, in North-western Syria, or between the string of villages along the Euphrates river valley, already existed and represented an essential source of livelihood since the period of ancient Mesopotamic Civilizations. Similarly, more recent cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah, developed under Ottoman rule and located westwards in the so called “Sunni triangle”(see the map below),functioned as last stops before traversing the central desert, the Sham, later becoming commercial hubs on the route linking Baghdad and Abu-Kamal in today Syria, or the Iraqi capital and the Trebil crossing with Jordan.
By promoting social and cultural exchanges, these trade relations fostered the emergence of enlarged communities based on tribal and family ties which spread all over the area between the upper stream of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, often referred to as Jazirah, the Arabic term for “island”. The role of tribal linkages and relations, therefore, represents a crucial factor to explain the deep and mutual influence between the Syrian and Iraqi dynamics of recent years, not least in terms of security. For instance, the tribes united within the Shammar confederation, which are amongst the largest and most influential ones, are present both in Iraq and Syria – but also Jordan and Saudi Arabia – extending from the eastern part of Nineveh, deep into the Syrian governorate of the Deir el-Zor. Further South, the Aqaydatconfederation populates the Syrian low Euphrates valley, spanning into the Iraqi Anbar governorate, where the Sunni Arab tribes of the powerful Dulaym confederation also reside.
Moreover, these territories are predominantly inhabited by Sunni Arabs, another factor contributing to a substantial degree of cohesion at the transnational level. In most recent times, it is exactly this historical Sunni heartland that provided co-religionist rebels and other Sunni opposition groups, including radical ones like the Islamic State, with the logistical and “ideological” support that they needed. However, while certainly relevant, the Sunni religious dimension should not be overemphasized to explain the violence that struck Syria and Iraq over the past few years, as deeper and more tangible causes lie beneath the surface.
In this respect, a major factor is the institutional vacuum that progressively emerged in both States, characterized not only by severe governance deficiencies, but also, as in the case of Iraq, by deliberate political exclusion pursued by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Since the ousting of Saddam’s regime in 2003, the Iraqi Sunni community has been progressively relegated to a secondary role within the society, losing influence to the advantage of the Shia majority. In 2010, the newly elected government of Nuri al-Maliki partially reneged on its promise to include thousands of Sunnis who contributed to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq into the security apparatus, leaving many of them with few – if any – prospective. A similar process, although inverted in terms of demography, took place in Syria, where the political power was gradually taken over by the Alawite élite led by the Assad family to the detriment of the Sunni majority. The governorates of Deir el-Zor and Hasakah, among others, witnessed not only an assertive strategy used by the Ba’ath regime to undermine the influence of local Sunni tribes, which co-opted them through “intimidation, infiltration and dependence”, but also a severe economic crisis caused by eight years of extreme draught and a mismanagement of water resources that, by 2010, had basically destroyed their predominantly rural economy. As the 2011 uprisings turned into a full-fledged civil war, the Assad regime diverted more and more funds intended for the agricultural sector to buying weapons and mercenaries. The result has been a growing resentment among these communities and their progressive rapprochement with Sunni rebel groups, including IS. In both Syria and Iraq, albeit with varying degrees of success, the terrorist group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rode this wave of malaise and presented itself as the champion of disenfranchised Sunni communities against hostile governments in Damascus and Baghdad.
‘Syraq’ in perspective
Analysed through a historical lens, the recurring attempts by state institutions to exert more control and authority over this border area has produced mixed results, depending on the status of Syrian-Iraqi bilateral relations as well as the power leverage of the government towards the local tribal communities. Again, this highlights the role of the border and its evolving nature since the late Twentieth century to today. During the ‘70s and the ‘80s, mutual rivalry and distrust prompted Ba’athist regimes in Syria and Iraq to seal their common border for the sake of centralized nationalist agendas, employing it as a tool to co-opt restive communities by stifling cross-border migration and commercial ties. During the ‘90s the Iraqi regime’s ability to control its border progressively faded due to the US first military intervention in 1991, the downsizing of the Armed forces and the subsequent power dilution in Baghdad to the advantage of tribal confederations. As the government increasingly relied on tribal power structures to manage security1 in exchange for land and diplomatic roles granted to tribal leaders, parallel economic networks based on smuggling and illicit trafficking developed across the borders with Syria and Jordan, greatly empowering local Sunni tribes. Later on, the 2003 US military intervention and the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime were followed by short-sighted decisions which created a vicious cycle of institutional failure, corrupt governance and social polarization, eventually leading to a pervasive insurgency and, then, to a bloody civil war with sectarian implications. The border, already porous, became the main gate for foreign fighters willing to fight the Americans and their allies, representing what the New York Times journalist John Burns labelled as the “Iraq’s Ho Chi Minh trail”. The Syrian government, for instance, often turned a blind eye as Daily convoys of buses full of volunteers flocked to the border from Syrian cities, raising enraged reactions in Washington while enlarging the pockets of corrupt border authorities on both sides of the border.
What lies ahead for Syraq?
As of 2013, when large revolts broke out in Anbar and other Sunni-majority provinces in Iraq, the Syrian civil war and the Iraqi crisis started to feed each other, depriving the Iraqi-Syrian border of its core function and transforming the adjacent provinces in a hotbed for what would become the group known as Islamic State. Both Damascus’ and Baghdad’s authority over their 599 km border ceased to exist in 2015 when all its three main border crossings were controlled by non-state actors. Nonetheless, the support offered to IS by Sunni tribes in both countries was patchy at least until the first half of 2013, and was often either instrumental to the tribes’ political agenda or the result of IS’ brutal rule. Hence, the violent repression of the Iraqi Security Forces against Sunni demonstrators pushed the Sunni community towards adopting more and more extremist positions and represented yet another missed opportunity for the forging of a unitary and stable state.
Currently, only the al-Qaim border crossing, located between Iraq Anbar and Syria Deir-el-Zor provinces is controlled by the respective governmental forces, albeit a substantial presence of elements from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been registered on the Syrian side. Both the north-eastern Rabiah crossing and the al-Tanf crossing in the southern part of the shared border are controlled by Iraqi authorities on the Iraqi side, while the Syrian one is still managed by Kurdish forces in Rabiha and US-backed Arab rebels in al-Tanf (both being non-state actors). Furthermore, security management in both these areas remains in the hands of a plethora of militias without a centralized command, often in conflict with each other and guided by external powerful backers in Iran or in wealthy Sunni Gulf countries. This situation certainly undermines stability in the long term, as local citizens are afraid of lootings and discrimination and perceive it as a manifestation of state’s absence. Rampant corruption and sectarian-driven policies continue to jeopardize the reconstruction process in both countries, indicating little governmental effort to eradicate the very factors that led to the breakdown of state authority and, ultimately, to the rise of IS. Now that the group seems completely defeated, at least militarily, can the Syrian-Iraqi border reacquire its original function?