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If US backtracks in Syria, Iraq hopes to fill its shoes

Iraq is expanding its relations with the Syrian government, seeking a strong position as the conflict resolves.

Iraq expects to play an official role in the Syrian transition, especially once things stabilize and more countries reopen their embassies in Damascus, as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain did recently.

On Dec. 30, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said a group of Iraqi officials had met the day before with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The delegation included national security adviser Faleh al-Fayad, who also heads Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units.

Iraq's experience in combating terrorism and extremist organizations will come in handy for Syria. Iraq also can help secure the border between the two countries and carry out airstrikes inside Syria against the Islamic State (IS).

Iraq has had no official military presence in Syria. There were armed factions affiliated with some Iraqi political parties that have ties to Iran, but as former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had pointed out, those didn't represent the Iraqi state. Today, there are indications Iraq's military could play a major role in Syria.

In his remarks, Abdul Mahdi hinted at a potential new role for the Iraqi government regarding Syria, especially as Iraq confirmed it is ready to enter Syria and fill the void left by US forces should they begin withdrawing soon — though that issue is up in the air. "If the United States withdraws from Syria, Iraq is fully prepared to cooperate with other security forces associated with the Syrian issue," he said Dec. 30.

Iraqi President Barham Salih, during his Jan. 3 visit to Turkey, discussed with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the Syrian dossier and securing borders. Meanwhile, Iraq's National Security Council (the country's highest security body) has been examining potential implications of a US withdrawal from Syria.

Iraqi officials have been extremely vocal about providing support to a Syrian transition. On Jan. 2, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali al-Hakim announced Iraq's backing for Syria to return to the Arab League. A few days earlier, the Iraqi president's spokesman, Luqman al-Faily, confirmed Iraqi support for ending the Syrian crisis peacefully.

Assad has authorized Iraqi aircraft to bomb IS sites in Syria without prior permission from Damascus officials. Sources in Abdul Mahdi's office told Al-Monitor, "The coming days may also witness Iraqi forces participating on the ground in the Syrian territories."

Abdul Mahdi said Jan. 8 he wouldn't rule out that option.

Yasen al-Bakri, a political science professor at Nahrain University in Baghdad, told Al-Monitor Iraq is concerned about "the extension of IS or any other terrorist groups." He added, "The Iraqi role will mainly depend on the air forces, while land forces will carry out hit-and-run operations inside Syria, only to retreat to the Iraqi border."

Bakri believes the United States also fears it could leave a vacuum to be filled by some of the Iraqi factions associated with Iran.

Iraqi president Barham Salih hinted at his country's new role in Syria when the envoy of the Russian president, Mikhail Bogdanov, visited in November. Salih called on Russia to work toward a common understanding with others on the Syrian issue and confirmed that Iraq's policy regarding Syria will be based on coordination and integration.

Hisham al-Hashimi, a researcher at the Al-Nahrain Centre for Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, "The role of Iraq in Syria remains limited because of the financial situation gripping Iraq. Moreover, Baghdad needs to structure its forces, which fought fierce and strong battles against IS over the past three years.”

Hashimi expects Iraqi's role will be limited to airstrikes, despite the heavy costs each air sortie entails.

So the question really isn't whether Iraq will play a part in Syria, but rather how extensive its role will be.

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