Assad Authorizes Iraq to Attack ISIS in Syria

The move highlights the close relations between the two neighboring countries

Syrian President Bashar Assad meeting with Iraqi national security adviser Faleh al-Fayad, Damascus, Syria, December 29, 2018.
SANA/AFP

Syria's state news agency says Syrian President Bashar Assad has authorized Iraqi forces to attack the Islamic State group inside Syria without waiting for permission from authorities in Damascus.

The move highlights the close relations between the two neighboring Arab countries that are both allied with Iran. Islamic State once controlled large parts of both countries when it declared a caliphate in 2014.

Iraqi warplanes and artillery have in the past pounded Islamic State positions inside Syria after getting the green light from Syrian authorities. The extremist group has been defeated in Iraq but still holds a small area in Syria close to the Iraqi border.

>> Read more: Iran showed signs of slowing down its Syria activity. Then new weapons arrived in Damascus ■ If Trump is beholden to Russia, Israel faces dire danger in Syria

Iraq's prime minister said on Sunday that top security officials from Baghdad had met Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, and hinted at a bigger Iraqi role fighting Islamic State militants as U.S. troops withdraw from Syria. 

"This issue has a lot of complications," Adel Abdul Madhi told reporters, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump's surprise announcement this month that he will withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. "If any negative development takes place in Syria it will affect us. We have a 600 km (400 mile) border with Syria and Daesh (Islamic State) is there," Abdul Mahdi said. 

The premier said the Iraqi delegation had visited Damascus to "gain the initiative, not just deal with the consequences" of any future Islamic State activity emboldened by the U.S. withdrawal. Iraqi news websites said the visit took place on Saturday.

Abdul Mahdi said Iraq sought to move beyond its current arrangement with Syria - under which it launches air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syrian territory - but did not got into more details. "There are groups operating in Syria, and Iraq is the best way to deal with this," he said, responding to a question about the possibility of increased involvement of Iraqi forces in Syria.

Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim paramilitary groups backed by Iran already operate inside Syrian territory against the Sunni Muslim militants of Islamic State.

Abdul Mahdi has previously said that about 2,000 Islamic State fighters are operating near the border in Syria and trying to cross into Iraq. 

U.S. President Donald Trump's announcement to withdraw approximately 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria came earlier this month. The main U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces has expressed concerns that the U.S. plans to pull out could lead to the revival of Islamic State saying that the extremists have not been defeated yet in Syria.

In Washington, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said he is going to encourage Trump to sit down with generals and reconsider pulling troops from Syria. "Slow this down, make sure that we get it right, make sure Islamic State never comes back," Graham said on CNN. "Don't turn Syria over to the Iranians. That's a nightmare for Israel."

Graham said that it's possible for the U.S. to reduce its footprint in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and that he supports the goal of having allies "do more and pay more." But he added that he also sees the U.S. military playing a role in all three countries for "a while to come." "I want to fight the war in the enemy's backyard, not ours," Graham said.

Graham has been a confidant of Trump, but it's unclear how much Trump will listen to him on Syria. Still, Graham said he's generally pleased with Trump's foreign policy initiatives. "All I ask him to do is to make sure we don't fumble the ball inside the 10-yard line, sit down with the generals," Graham said.

In Tehran, Iran and Syria signed Sunday a long-term strategic and economic agreement as the war winds down in Syria where Iran and Russia were the main backers of Assad's government since the crisis began nearly eight years ago.

Syria's SANA news agency quoted Syrian Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade Mohammed Samer al-Khalil, who signed the agreement, as saying that the deal includes "full cooperation on the financial and banking levels." He added that this would allow Iranian companies to be present through investments in Syria.

The Syrian government has gained control of large parts of the country with the help of Iran and Russia and some Arab countries, including the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, have reopened their embassies in Damascus.

The Syrian government estimates reconstruction of the war-torn country will cost some $200 billion dollars and last 15 years. Al-Khalil said that "priority in the reconstruction of Syria will be given to Iranian public and private companies," according to SANA's report.

SANA also reported that a technical delegation form the UAE visited Damascus International Airport to evaluate it in preparation for resumption of flights between the Gulf nation and Syria.