Syrian aircraft reportedly carried out airstrikes June 24 against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in the Iraqi town of Qaim, located at the Syrian border in Anbar province. This is not the first time that the Syrian air force has acted against such targets along the border. Recently, these airstrikes have occurred in the militant-controlled areas of western Iraq, though these strikes will not dramatically change the situation on the ground. However, the fact that three bitter adversaries—the United States, Iran and Syria—are defending the Iraqi government and responding to the militant threat against it shows that even historical rivals can cooperate, if only temporarily.
Any airstrike in Iraqi territory is noteworthy. The US-led invasion permanently disabled most of Iraq’s air force. Baghdad’s efforts to rebuild it have proceeded slowly, and it still awaits the delivery of some procurement items, including US F-16s. The air force currently operates only a handful of fixed-wing Cessna Caravans that can attack ground targets with hellfire missiles. These are easily distinguishable from military-grade jet fighters. Baghdad also has a few dedicated attack and light attack reconnaissance helicopters used to supplement ground attack capabilities. It used these assets to blunt the initial militant advance south down the Tigris River valley toward Baghdad, even as Iraqi army resistance disappeared.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s current battlespace extends well beyond the Tigris River valley into other regions of Sunni Iraq. Sunni militant presence is heavy in the Euphrates River valley, which extends north and west from Baghdad toward the Syrian border, where the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant controls large swathes of territory and Baghdad’s military power is limited. Since militants took control of Mosul, the government has focused on stabilizing the military and securing Baghdad and the immediate vicinity. It is here that much of its ground-support aircraft have been active. This focus has allowed militants to seize territory along the Iraqi Euphrates River valley, which extends into areas of Syria already controlled by Sunni militants—making the border nearly irrelevant.
The border’s irrelevance has brought Damascus’ and Baghdad’s security imperatives into alignment. This cooperation against a legitimate regional threat also enhances the international standing of the embattled regime of Bashar al Assad. The Syrian rebels, some of whom are supported by foreign actors such as the United States, are also fighting alongside the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Sunni militancy is threatening large portions of Iraq and, by extension, US and Iranian regional interests, so the two erstwhile enemies now share military imperatives. The Syrian air force is now bombing the sovereign territory of Iraq, albeit likely with Baghdad’s blessing, and the United States has remained largely silent, whereas before it had condemned regime military action inside Syria. The United States has military advisers currently in Baghdad, and the only US statement on the June 24 incident was a denial of responsibility, confirming that some air attacks had taken place.
The airstrikes along the Syrian border will not affect the conflict’s outcome appreciably. The regime has carried out a much larger and longer-lasting yet indecisive air campaign in the same battlespace within Syria. Regardless, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and its allies are gaining reach across a large trans-border region. That no single actor can contain the threat necessitates some degree of cooperation. That cooperation may be tacit for now, but in time it could become more overt if necesary. For the United States, Iran, Iraq and the Syrian regime, this would be a new experience altogether.
Publishing by The Manila Times of this analysis is with express permission of STRATFOR.