Iraq's new Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has declared his country is considering further action against ISIS across the border in Syria. What exact action Baghdad might take, aside from additional airstrikes, remains unclear.
"If any negative development takes place in Syria it will affect us," the Iraqi premier said on December 30.
"We have a 600km border with Syria and Daesh is there," he added, using the Arabic acronym for the group.
Abdul-Mahdi also said that Iraqi security officials had just travelled to Damascus to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One anonymous Iraqi official told Russia Today's Arabic network that Assad told them Iraqi warplanes could enter Syrian airspace to bomb ISIS without authorization, but, nevertheless, stressed that Baghdad must inform Damascus before each cross-border strike.
Iraq has been launching intermittent airstrikes against ISIS in Syria for over a year now, primarily using the fleet of F-16s the US began delivering to the country in back 2015. While it invariably declares that it coordinates these strikes with Damascus, this might not necessarily actually be the case.
Last June Arnaud Delalande, a freelance defence and security analyst who wrote a book about Iraq's new air force, told Rudaw English that he doubts
there "is any real coordination" between Baghdad and Damascus over these strikes.
"The Iraqis certainly communicate with the Assad regime but only after hitting the target in order to ensure that there is no violation of sovereignty between the two neighbouring states," he explained. "Iraqi military officers I asked think these communications are a facade and not real coordination."
One day after Abdul-Mahdi's comments, Iraqi F-16 fighter-bombers launched
an airstrike targeting a meeting of an estimated 30 ISIS members in Syria's eastern Deir ez-Zor province. Baghdad then announced that it "will continue to take all necessary measures to defeat Daesh inside and outside Iraq."
Iraq has its own security concerns related to the planned US withdrawal from Syria since ISIS remnants in the country are situated in Deir ez-Zor and the broader Middle Euphrates River Valley that borders Iraq. Consequently, if pressure on these remnants is relinquished by a US withdrawal, they could potentially threaten Iraq itself once again.
An August 2018 United Nations report estimates that there could be as many as 30,000 ISIS members still active in both Iraq and Syria. The last major offensive against the group was in and the around the eastern Syrian town of Hajin by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). That campaign saw the SDF suffer heavy casualties combating that entrenched and ferocious enemy.
"The obvious point of real coordination is the border," said Michael Knights, a noted Iraq expert and the Lafer Fellow at The Washington Institute.
"This is the issue of greatest concern to Iraq. Everyone in Iraq remembers Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah relocating ISIS fighters from western Syria to the area adjacent to Iraq," he explained.
Knights was referring to the convoy incident in August 2017, when Hezbollah made a deal with ISIS forces holed up on the Syrian border with Lebanon that allowed approximately 300 of them, along with their relatives, to travel across the country to the Iraqi border in air-conditioned buses. That deal, understandably, infuriated Iraqis at the time.
"The same thing may happen again if Iraq does not close the border in coordination with the Syrians," he concluded.
But precisely what level of coordination or what type of military action Iraq may carry out in eastern Syria is very much in question.
"If Prime Minister Mahdi is serious about taking more action in Syria that would likely mean more air strikes, cross-border raids using the Iraqi army, and special operations with the Counter Terror Unit," predicted Iraq analyst Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog.
Wing, however, questions "whether this should be a priority."
"The Islamic State is rebuilding in central Iraq right now and the government is doing a poor job countering it," he explained. "That should be the main emphasis of the new government."
ISIS effectively took advantage of Iraq's military takeover of Kirkuk and other disputed Kurdistan regions from the Kurdistan Region in October 2017, which resulted in clashes and serious tensions between the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Kurdish Peshmerga. It did so by entrenching its presence in the security gaps from their separate frontline positions.
In 2018, ISIS conducted a series of terrorist attacks, including vehicle-borne improvised explosive (VBIED) attacks, and targeted assassinations of village elders in the Kirkuk region.
While the ISF and Peshmerga have launched a series of attacks, backed by the US-led coalition, targeting the group in these areas, ISIS still poses a significant threat to this strategically-important region, despite former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's December 2017 declaration that the group was defeated in Iraq.
During his surprise visit to US servicemen in Iraq's al-Asad airbase on December 26, US President Donald Trump said he has "no plans at all" for withdrawing American forces from Iraq. Addressing the potential that ISIS could capitalise on any vacuum left by a US withdrawal he said American forces can simply "hit them so fast and so hard they really won't know what the hell happened."
Shortly after Trump's initial announcement of the withdrawal, The New York Times, citing two anonymous military officials, reported that the Pentagon is considering a plan for using small teams of American commandos for strikes against the group in Syria. These special forces would likely use Iraqi soil in order for "surge" attacks against specific ISIS targets.
Consequently, later in the year we may well see Iraq becoming an important base for both US and Iraqi military raids targeting ISIS in eastern Syria.