Where Iraq and Syria Meet, Unrest Follows

Despite the classic complaint about an ‘artificial border,’ it’s actually the disintegration of a hardened frontier that has led to chronic instability

Where Iraq and Syria Meet, Unrest Follows
US soldiers in a Bradley tank patrol an area near Syria’s northeastern Semalka border crossing with Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous territory, on January 12, 2021 / Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images

Two years after the eradication of the caliphate claimed by the Islamic State group, the Iraqi-Syrian borderlands continue to be restless. From American and Israeli strikes on the bases of Iranian-linked militias, to Turkish airstrikes and threats, to Iran-backed militias in the region, this border remains a theater for conflicts involving states as well as nonstate and para-state actors.

Some point to this as further testimony that the artificiality of the border is the root cause of ongoing instability in the area. Based on this logic, only by redrawing these borders to create more “natural” units, with greater congruence between the populations’ cultural identities and their political entities, can such restlessness end. Many have highlighted problems that stem from this fabrication of borders in the Middle East, arguing, for example, that the main feature of Arab politics is the incongruence between the Umma (pan-Islamic or pan-Arab nation) and the Dawla (state). This is reflected in the coining of two different translations of the word nationalism in Arabic: Wataniyya (territorial nationalism) and Qawmiyya (ethnic or cultural nationalism).

The Islamic State evoked this narrative of artificiality when it spectacularly announced in 2014 the end of what it wrongly identified as the Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria, hoping to achieve the long-awaited congruence between the Umma and Dawla.

And the Islamic State was not the only organization seeking to eradicate or underplay this border. Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) found in the Iraqi-Syrian borderlands a potential laboratory to explore its plan for a stateless society based on Abdullah Öcalan’s idea of a democratic confederation of self-governed communities.

And in another experiment, Shiite militants have turned this border into a key operational theater for the Iran-led axis of resistance and pan-Shiite solidarity. Supervised by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, groups such as Kataib Hizbullah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Liwa al-Tafuf, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada and Fatimyuun (a militia predominantly composed of Afghan Shiite fighters) deployed their militants in bases at the border, especially near the border districts of Qaim and Sinjar in Western Iraq. Some of these groups operate on the Syrian side or cross the border regularly as part of the efforts by the “resistance axis” to support Syrian President Bashar al-Asaad’s government and to establish safe corridors that extend from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

However, if we give this borderland a closer look we can see the limits of the artificiality narrative. To begin with, consider this: the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed statehood did not survive, partly because millions of Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis did not fully subscribe to its ideology, preferring instead to flee its rule and the “natural” state it sought to build. Some joined the U.S.-led coalition and fought the jihadist group fiercely. Similarly, the PKK’s ambition to expand its project across this border is facing resistance from local groups seeking sustainable international recognition and support. The tension between the PKK and the main party in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), recently reached unprecedented levels and could yet escalate into an intra-Kurdish conflict.

The question, then, is why this border is again subjected to relentless contention by groups embracing transnational ideas? Why do Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State, Iran-backed Shiite militants and Kurdish militants of PKK and allied groups still find in this border a space to operate and to consolidate their positions against their respective rivals?

The answer lies in the disintegration of the apparatuses of the central state, which made it impossible to maintain previous levels of infiltration and control. On the Iraqi side of the border, the periphery has been subjected to contestations between state and nonstate actors since the fall of Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. Before that, the Baath party used to be the dominant political organization in the borderland, and the government conducted a significant degree of control over the border. It repressed local challengers and was heavily involved in reengineering the local economy and identities through centralized planning. The collapse of these institutions created power vacuums in the periphery that nonstate actors sought to fill. Today, After the Islamic State’s failed attempt to perpetuate its authority across this border, a new set of players are filling the vacuum and seeking to reshape the identity and future of these borderlands.

Borders are not merely physical barriers. They are primarily cognitive constructs reinforced by policing, as well as legal and bureaucratic practices implemented by what is usually the most powerful authority in the land: the central government. But when another authority steps up to enforce these parameters, it can change the borders and boundaries in its own image.

Such has been the case in western Iraq, a region that until 20 years ago had been subjected to absolute centralization and indoctrination by Baghdad. By securitizing this border, diminishing the so-called illicit movement of goods and people, Baghdad and Damascus inserted a set of notions and practices in the borderland that made the border real and imaginable, although invisible.

The irony is that under the rule of the two competing branches of the pan-Arab Baath parties in Iraq and Syria, this border became a firm barrier between two countries despite the propaganda lamenting the “colonial partition of the Arab Homeland” touted by each respective regime.

Indeed, the level of centralization of this borderland reached its highest in Iraq under the Baath rule, taking the form of economic and trade route controls, security measures, military conscription and sociocultural engineering. For example, in Qaim, the government established a large industrial complex composed of a phosphate company and a cement plant. Hundreds of families from other parts of the country and from different ethnic and religious backgrounds came to work in the complex and mix with the district’s predominantly Arab-Sunni tribal community. Not only did Qaim become more urbanized and socially diverse, but its economic connection with Baghdad was also boosted, thanks to the expansion of the railway system that connected the area to the capital, which transported the products of its phosphate and cement companies as well as the town’s agricultural products. The destiny of Western Anbar population, including Qaim, became increasingly tied to politics in Baghdad, and many locals abandoned agriculture to work in regime apparatuses, including its security services.

Despite all this control, various forms of smuggling continued to exist across borders, whether in Western Anbar or in Western Ninawa, where tribal ties across borders served as social networks of trust between smugglers. Yet at least until the 1990s, the transformation of Iraq into an oil-dependent state, in which most of the wealth was accumulated in the center, enabled Baghdad to pull the peripheries to the central government and diminish the value of illicit trade.

In the northern town of Sinjar, the state’s infiltration took an even more aggressive form. This border district was always defined by its Yazidi population, its mountainous terrain, which attracted militants and “outlaws,” and by being a contested area between Kurdish and Arab nationalists. For these reasons, the Baath government adopted an aggressive Arabization policy in Sinjar, forcing tens of thousands of Yazidis out of their villages, located near or on Mount Sinjar, and into collective townships that carried Arabic names. This policy was helped by the fact that while most Yazidis were ethnically Kurds, they perceived themselves as culturally distinct from other Muslim Kurds. This community’s identity crisis has been amplified by Arabization and — after Saddam’s fall — by the Kurdification that the KDP had been pushing.

In effect, the state’s infiltration of Iraq’s western borderland and the heavy securitization of the border reinforced the connection between this geographical periphery and Baghdad. The assumed artificiality of the border became less of a factor as Sunni Arabs and most Yazidis came to perceive their “Iraqi-ness” as an imaginable association routinized by daily practices under an increasingly assertive — and repressive — state. In other words, Baghdad’s presence in the daily lives of the borderland population made it easier for them to “imagine” themselves as part of Iraqi collective identity.

Some level of retreat by Iraq’s central authority started to occur in the 1990s, mainly as a result of the international sanctions that weakened the Iraqi government and reduced its resources. This period also coincided with an active return of smuggling activities across this border, from and into Syria and Jordan, often triggered by the plummeting value of the Iraqi currency, and sometimes facilitated by figures in the regime seeking to circumvent the sanctions. After 2003, however, the state’s retreat happened on a much larger scale in the form of a systematic collapse.

In areas such as Sinjar and Zummar, in Ninawa, it was the KDP that rushed to fill the vacuum and assume functions previously undertaken by Baghdad. Western Ninawa and Anbar, largely populated by Arab Sunni communities, became sanctuaries and trafficking routes for Sunni jihadists. Qaim, surrounded by a large desert and located only 4 miles from the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal, which conversely, is surrounded by orchards and vegetation on both sides of the Euphrates, was one of the early strongholds for jihadists fighting the U.S. occupation and Shiite dominated government. Unsurprisingly, it was also the first area where the U.S. Army implemented the model of “tribal awakening” by backing a militia associated with the district’s main tribe, Bu Mahal, to fight the jihadists in 2005.

But it was only after the Syrian uprising that this border fell into total disorder, with the retreat of the Syrian regime from Eastern Syria and the ensuing insurgency in Western Iraq. These peripheries witnessed a Hobbesian moment of the war of all against all — the idea that everyone is the enemy of everyone else, willing to fight for resources without a government that stops them — until the Islamic State prevailed in 2014 and declared its caliphate. This state, which spanned the Syria-Iraq border, was an attempt to turn what was a periphery for these two states into a Sunni “center” glued by the coercive power of the Islamic State and the appeal of Sunni identity and Salafist ideology. The Islamic State coupled Qaim and Albu Kamal in one region (Wilayat al-Furat, or the Euphrates Province) and decoupled Sinjar from Mosul, grouping it with Baaj and Telafar in the Jazira Region, to connect the cross-border areas.

It was therefore not because of the artificiality of this border that the Islamic State sought to build itself here, but because of the state collapse in Iraq in 2003 and, later, the Syrian uprising in 2011. Still, even as the caliphate state came to an end, the impact of this disintegration and the consequences of the war against the Islamic State continue to shape Iraq’s western borderland. The border has become a theater for the activity of several paramilitaries and armed nonstate actors, as well as an arena of competition among geopolitical powers. Not only was there a contestation between state and nonstate actors, but also rivalries generated by the complex and uncertain transformations of hybrid actors from militancy to statism, as is the case with the Kurdish peshmerga, or the People Mobilization Units (PMU) on the Iraqi side, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the Syrian side.

The PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish government since the 1980s, found in these peripheries a space to expand its presence and influence local dynamics, often through alliances with local groups such as the PMUs in northeastern Syria and Sinjar Protection Units in northern Iraq. The Kurdistan Communities Union, an umbrella for the PKK and other allied militant Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, can claim today that it became an effective actor on both sides of the border, which puts into practice Öcalan’s renowned philosophy about the democratic confederation and autonomy.

On the other hand, the PKK itself has increasingly become an amorphous entity. Its boundaries are less defined, and its character interwoven with the reconstructed identities of its local allies and local environments in Iraq and Syria, where it seeks to embed itself.

The PKK’s encroachment clashed with the interests of the main party in Kurdistan, the KDP, turning the northern section of the Iraqi-Syrian border into a key domain for the rivalry between the two pan-Kurdish groups. Somehow, this is not merely a military and territorial competition; it also reflects a conflict between the PKK’s radical, egalitarian and transnational vision and the KDP’s pragmatic and authoritarian approach to governance. Nowhere is such conflict more apparent than in Sinjar, where a group of rebelling Yazidi youth found in the PKK’s culture an alternative for the highly conservative and hierarchical culture of their religious and tribal authorities.

For centuries, the Yazidi community was known for its cohesiveness that was reinforced by geographic isolation and mystical religion. Today, after decades of secularization, the state’s reengineering and, later, the infiltration of political parties and ideologies, its identity became more contested and divided. As a periphery, it struggles to find a center to connect with; or more precisely, its identity has splintered into various identities, each beholden to the weight of gravity from a variety of authorities.

In the southern section of this border region, in Western Anbar province, Iranian-allied militias operate, both across the border with Syria and within Iraqi territory, taking on security and governance responsibilities over the local population. Their main purpose, in addition to fighting the Islamic State, is to secure a corridor through Iraq to Syria that provides logistical support for the Iran-led “axis of resistance.” In a way, it is an attempt to connect this border section to an alternative center, located in Tehran.

Indeed, the constant redefining of the border over the past decade has been the result of a weakened center. Geopolitical powers such as Iran, Turkey, Israel, Russia and the United States are competing to shape the new setting, whether by trying to reconnect these peripheries to their states or to alternative centers, or by allying with armed nonstate actors to constitute new centers. It is a grand game to redefine this borderland and reconstruct the sociopolitical identities of its populations.

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