Syria is courting Iraqi ties after sending its foreign minister to Baghdad on Sunday. This is part of the larger process by which Israel’s northern neighbor is returning to the Arab League. Unlike some of the Arab regimes, Iraq has not had hostilities with Syria in recent years, as the two countries are both partners of Iran. However, Damascus has many issues with Baghdad because US forces are in Iraq and also in Syria, which wants the Americans to leave. Pro-Iranian militias in Iraq also want the US to leave.
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad arrived in the Iraqi capital for his multi-day visit. He met with Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and also with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani and President Abdul Latif Rashid. Hussein said that Iraq has supported Syria’s return to the Arab League.
According to a Reuters report of the meeting, “Hussein said that Iraq has received over 250,000 refugees from Syria, the majority of whom are hosted at refugee camps in the Kurdistan Region... Mekdad also praised Iraq for coming to the aid of Syria following the earthquake and thanked Iraqi people for helping their ‘other half’ in the country.”
Syria's long and short-term goals
Syria says it wants to work with Iraq to fight against “terror” as well as the drug trade. Syria is the origin of some of the drug trade in the region, particularly Captagon. This has been an issue in relations between Syria and Jordan and the Gulf. Iraq is also a place where drugs are smuggled, some from Syria and some from Iran.
Iranian-backed militias are accused of a role in this trade; getting these countries hooked on drugs to undermine them also destabilizes the Gulf. Syria also wants Baghdad to get US troops to leave Iraq. Iran has been using militias to target US troops for years in Iraq and Syria.
In 2019, Iran began its campaign against US forces in Iraq, eventually leading to the US response that included the killing of IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. American forces moved mostly to the Kurdistan region, which is safe, stable and friendly to the US. Iran shifted operations to Syria in 2021, carrying out around 80 attacks using proxies in recent years. Recent reports suggest Iran may shift to using improvised explosive devices (IUDs) to attack US forces in Syria.
Syria’s goal is to isolate US forces in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and then try to get them to leave. US forces in Syria are generally supplied via Iraq. The border crossing is tenuous though, with the Semalka crossing often closed.
Logistically, the troops can be supplied by helicopter from Erbil International Airport, or even from Kuwait, Al-Asad and Baghdad. However, that is not ideal. Iranian proxies based near Mosul have used rockets to try to target American forces in Erbil and have also used drones. Washington is constructing a massive consulate in Erbil, which symbolizes US commitment to the region. The Syrian regime knows that America is also building a massive embassy in Lebanon.
Syria, working with Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon and with Iran and pro-Iran militias in Iraq, likely sees those two aspects of the US presence as hurdles to its alliance with Iran and Iranian hegemony in the region. For this reason, the meetings in Baghdad were important to Damascus.