QAIM, Iraq — US troops started pulling out of northeastern Syrian territory held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in late October prior to returning to the Deir al-Zor region along the Iraqi-Syrian border some days later, allegedly to protect oil fields.
US officials have claimed that some troops may be repositioned in Iraq’s westernmost province of Anbar to continue the fight against the Islamic State (IS). Other troops may be left in eastern Syria, but “far away from the Turkish border,” according to a spokesperson in the US-led coalition to fight IS.
It is unclear whether, where and how many of these troops will be authorized to remain in Iraq, with some reports saying they will need to leave Iraq entirely within four weeks. Though Anbar province is currently stable, it remains susceptible to several potentially destabilizing factors.
Al-Monitor spent several days in the Iraqi-Syrian border area near and in Qaim in October and spoke to tribal leaders, local security forces and internally displaced people, or IDPs, who had recently returned to the area.
Qaim has gradually revived since Iraqi forces retook it from IS with international coalition support in November 2017. The border crossing between Qaim and the Syrian city of Abu Kamal reopened Sept. 30, for the first time since 2012.
Sheikh Sabah of the Abu Mahal tribe said, “We do not know yet whether the opening of the border will be good or not.” He spoke to Al-Monitor from his diwan in the town of al-Obeidy in the Qaim district. “The Syrian government on the other side is still very weak,” he stressed, which could lead to security issues.
Pro-Iranian armed groups are also active on the other side, and airstrikes on them continue.
Several non-local Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) belonging to Iraqi government forces are deployed in the area. However, it is difficult to discern with certainty what other armed groups cross in and out of Syria at this spot in the border.
A non-local PMU, Kataib al-Imam Ali, whose members this reporter has interviewed twice over the past year in Qaim, has reportedly left the area entirely.
Though officially part of the Iraqi government forces, fighters from the PMU told Al-Monitor in July 2019 that they were regularly crossing the border into Syria to support “Iranian forces and our brothers in the muqawama [resistance].”
Locals and one source from the group confirmed that Kataib al-Imam Ali is no longer at its former base in Qaim, which was near the police station by the border crossing, but it is unclear why. A fighter from the group told Al-Monitor in a WhatsApp conversation that the group had moved farther north, to Ninevah province.
The Tufuf Brigade, the commander of which this reporter interviewed in 2018 in Karbala, is still manning a checkpoint at the entrance to the town.
Over a hundred families have returned recently to Qaim from IDP camps in other areas of the province, Al-Monitor was told by several locals.
Shekih Sabah said, “The government wanted all to be sent back, regardless of whether they are families of IS members of not. I believe that this will be negative for security.”
Many of the IDPs who recently returned, Sheikh Sabah noted, were from “Abu Hardan, in the Roumana area” across the Euphrates from the main part of the city. It borders the Baghouz plain extending west into Syria, where IS made its last stand.
The tribe with the same name as this area, the Abu Hardan, is the largest in the Syrian town of Hajin across the border.
Tribal relations are still strong in Anbar and are sometimes used to facilitate the return of IS-linked families, Anas Akram Mohammed from the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, told Al-Monitor.
In Qaim, Sheikh Rabaa al-Karbouly told Al-Monitor that over 1,000 men are still missing from the Karabla area of the city alone. He estimated that around 4,000 total are still missing from the Qaim district.
Al-Monitor met with one family from the Karbouly tribe that had recently returned to the area from an IDP camp in Ramadi.
The mother, who has eight children, including four of school age not attending school, said it was good to be back in their home area.
However, she stressed, they do not have the money for transportation or for school clothes and supplies, making life more difficult than it was in the camps.
One of the children, a 10-year-old boy, claimed he had never been to school at all. He said that he had been told by the local school that he was too old to enroll in first grade.
Another man who Al-Monitor met on the main street near the border said that he was unhappy to have been “forced” to come back since he is unemployed and sees no real possibility of finding a job in the area. He added that several male relatives of his had been taken by IS and are still missing.
All Qaim natives Al-Monitor spoke to said that general security was good, however.
Jamal Mohamed, the al-Obeidy commander of Hashd al-Gharbiya, a local PMU, told Al-Monitor in an interview at his base that an operation had been conducted the previous day south of Qaim to look for a possible IS presence.
“Our forces and those of Aaly al-Furat [another local PMU], the Iraqi army and the intelligence services” took part, he said, “but we didn’t find any new signs of their presence in the entire area.”
Security and counterterrorism expert Hisham al-Hashimi told Al-Monitor that “the danger on the Iraqi border from IS that escaped from Ain Issa and Qamishli” in Syria recently “is not very substantial” and quoted the figure of “100 terrorists that have reportedly fled and whose whereabouts are unknown” in northeastern Syria.
Other sources have cited as many as 600 IS escapees from SDF facilities across the border. Thus far, however, there seems to be no evidence that any of them have crossed into Iraq.