The Iraq-Syria conflict has made a rapid transition from an exchange of goodwill and cooperation between the two states when PM Maliki visited Damascus on August 18, a day before Bloody Wednesday, to a dispute that’s seen Iraqi troops line the Syrian border in an apparent attempt to stop militants from infiltrating Iraq.
According to Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jaridah, in response to militant infiltration into Iraqi territory from Syria, the Iraqi government is now drawing up a “Walls of Iraq” plan that creates a military buffer along the 375 mile border with Syria.
It’s difficult to imagine that this plan will actually be implemented. One reason is that it isn’t going to work. Practically, it’s going to be difficult to police a 375 mile border made up of flat desert and terrain the insurgents know all too well. It’s also land dominated by tribal connections that facilitate militant infiltration and assimilation. The US also tried this in previous years, but it failed.
Turkey has used similar strategies on its borders with Syria and Iraq to combat the PKK. Though cross-border attacks by the PKK have decreased and are very rare now, this has more to do with the PKK’s waning strength than the effectiveness of Turkey’s border patrols.
That cross-border attacks emanating from Syria have decreased over the years suggests the solution is found in political will than anywhere else. Syria, evidently, can play a more effective counter-insurgency role if it really wanted to.
Containment through military raids is also an option, but not a solution.
If Iraq does opt for an actual wall along the border, rather than a military wall, then it could be an effective defence against cross-border insurgents as it has done for other states. French forces for example built a fence along the Algerian border with Tunisia in 1957 to restrict the infiltration of Algerian rebel forces, and with positive results. The Israeli wall along the border with the West Bank, although controversial, has proved to be effective in reducing suicide and terrorist attacks within Israeli territory.
Creating a wall, military or otherwise, along the Syrian border might have adverse regional consequences however. Iraq’s neighbouring states, in response, may also decide to build a wall along their borders using similar justification – prevent government-insurgent and ethno-sectarian violence from spilling onto their borders. This could add to regional instability, alienate Iraq even more in the Arab world, and push it even closer to Iran which, as mentioned above, won’t have an Iraqi wall along its borders – something more to do with Iran’s unparalleled control over the Baghdad government than anything else.
Having a large army of military personnel along the Syrian border would in any case be fiercely opposed by the KRG. Any such move might be considered by Erbil as a disguise for increased Baghdad presence in northern Iraq, where Arab-Kurd tensions over disputed territories are high and which have almost led to armed conflict between the KRG and the Baghdad government.