Pro-Syrian regime forces are carrying out a joint operation with Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units), sweeping Syria’s eastern desert near the Iraq border for ISIS cells, multiple sources told The Defense Post.
The operation brought together units from Syria’s National Defense Forces militias, Syrian Arab Army regulars, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraqi PMUs on each side of the border.
The NDF said its participation on social media on Friday.
“The Syrian [Arab] Army and the National Defense Forces in Deir Ezzor in cooperation with the Iraqi Army and [other Iraqi] forces, are becoming involved with combing the border strip between Syria and Iraq, departing from the city of Al-Bukamal towards the outskirts of the Tanf oil field,” an NDF statement read.
A representative of the group confirmed to The Defense Post on Sunday, May 5 that the operation was ongoing.
The NDF posted photos on Facebook, purporting to demonstrate a column of its forces, along with a map appearing to show a triangular area of operations stretching from the city of Palmyra to the edge of the 55-km deconfliction zone occupied by the U.S.-led Coalition and vetted Syrian opposition fighters, and Al-Bukamal to the east.
The area is considered strategic for moving personnel and also tools from Iraq into Syria via the Qaim border crossing.
If the NDF’s states are accurate, the operation would put the Syrian government and then Iran-backed forces in close proximity to the Coalition’s declared 55-km zone around al-Tanf.
The Coalition has performed airstrikes against pro-regime forces approaching the zone in the past.
In March, backed by the Coalition, the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces caught the last remaining ISIS territory in Syria on the east bank of the Euphrates near the Iraq border.
The group keeps sleeper cells across Syria and Iraq and continues to launch attacks on pro-regime forces from Syria’s Badia desert.
Last month, ISIS drew a significant number of pro-Syrian regime forces into a days-long fight, near Sukhnah, southwest of Deir Ezzor, killing at least a dozen.
In Iraq, Coalition aircraft over several days last week struck ISIS sleeper cells in the Wadi Ash Shai area of Hamrin in the first acknowledged combat employment of the F-35A joint strike fighter.
“Coalition operations will continue to target Daesh’s capacity to reemerge, which includes focusing on it is financial, explosive-manufacturing, communication, recruiting, planning, training, and smuggling activities,” a Coalition spokesperson told The Defense Post.
Swaths of the Iraqi side of the border are manned by predominantly-Shiite Popular Mobilization militias to bolster the presence of Iraqi Army forces
Many PMUs are participating in the operation on each side of the border, in accordance with Philip Smyth, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Among them are Hezbollah and the Iran-linked Kata’ib al-Imam Ali (Imam Ali Battalions), which claims to have some 500 fighters in Syria and maintains a base in Al-Bukamal.
Last month, a commander in the Kata’ib al-Imam Ali denied his forces are paid by Iran, saying their salaries come only from Iraq’s PMU committee.
The militia has been accused of involvement in cross-border smuggling.
The U.S. government has focused the group’s leader Shibl al-Zaydi with economic sanctions, accusing him of sending fighters to Syria on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of its Quds Forces, Qassem Soleimani.
“Groups on the Iraqi side of the border included Liwa al-Tafuf, Harakat al-Abdal (though, some elements also operated on the Syrian side), and Harakat Ansar Allah al-Awfiyah,” Smyth told The Defense Post through email.
A spokesperson for Iraq’s Ministry of Defense did not return a request for comment.
Last month, a prominent Shiite cleric and leader of the Iraqi parliament’s Sairoon (Forward) coalition Muqtada al-Sadr publicly called for all non-local PMUs to withdraw from Syria.
The PMUs organized to fill the security role of the Iraqi Army in the wake of Islamic State’s takeover of much of northwest Iraq in 2014.
The Iraqi government declared it would pay PMU fighters a salary equal to that of the Iraqi Army in November 2018 as a part of endeavors to bring the militias under Baghdad’s authority.
The Syrian government organized groups of pro-regime militias into the NDF with Iranian support in 2012 as a local part-time volunteer reserve to bolster the Syrian Arab Army. Members of the NDF militias receive salaries and equipment from the government.