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Syrian-Kurdish Leader Eyes Action With Iraq

(Reuters) -- A top Syrian Kurdish politician suggested Wednesday that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and the Iraqi government could mount joint operations against Daesh (ISIS) in the area on the border of the two countries. Aldar Xelil warned of a militant revival in eastern Syria, where operations by the U.S.-backed SDF have tapered off since they diverted fighters to the northwest to fight a Turkish offensive.

"Iraq is a neighboring state and is also suffering from Daesh terrorism," he said in a telephone interview with Reuters.

"Daesh is present in the shared area between us and this points to the possibility of conditions arising that would pave the way for joint actions against Daesh," he said.

Xelil is co-chair of the Movement for a Democratic Society, a coalition of mainly Syrian Kurdish parties, and an architect of plans for autonomy in northern Syria.

The SDF, which the Kurdish YPG militia spearheads, has been the main partner of the U.S.-led coalition against Daesh in Syria, helping drive the militants out of swaths of northern and eastern Syria last year.

But its operations against Daesh have been sidetracked since Turkey, backed by allied Syrian insurgents, mounted an invasion in northwestern Syria targeting the YPG-controlled Afrin region.

The SDF sent fighters to Afrin from other areas and the U.S.-led coalition has said that this resulted in limited offensive operations against Daesh.

Turkey views the YPG militia as a terrorist group and a threat to its national security. Turkey and its Syrian militia allies captured Afrin town last month, leading the YPG to declare a new phase of guerrilla war in the northwest.

Xelil said that the shift in tactics away from direct confrontation meant fewer fighters were needed in the northwest.

"The number has reduced a lot," he said. "The surplus number will head to the other areas to strengthen the defense of these areas," against Daesh and "any other threat," he added.

"After Afrin, Daesh has revived and has started to expand in the region and has benefited a lot from the vacuum," Xelil said. "This is a danger we are thinking about and we are trying to find the appropriate means to take measures against the expansion of Daesh," he said.

Meanwhile, an expert close to the Baghdad government, Hisham al-Hashimi, said Iraq may carry out special forces operations against Daesh militants in Syria to stop them infiltrating back into Iraq.

While troops could be dropped into Syria, the plan did not at this stage involve sending ground forces over the border, Hashimi, who advises several governments on Daesh, including Iraq's, told Reuters.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in Iraq over the militant group in December but Sunday described the militants' presence in Syria as a real danger.

With Baghdad on good terms with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Abadi stressed that any operations would be limited.

"Our plan is to move from fighting terrorism in Iraq to fighting terrorism in the region. ... We are not trespassing over our border or attacking neighboring countries," he told a news conference, adding that the plan was being discussed by the Iraqi military leadership.

Last year Iraqi warplanes carried out at least one strike on Daesh targets inside Syria, in coordination with the U.S.-led anti-Daesh coalition and with the approval of the Syrian government.

Iraq also good relations with Iran and Russia, Assad's main backers in the 7-year-old Syrian civil war, while it receives at the same time strong support from the coalition.

Abadi declared the victory five months after U.S.-backed Iraqi forces dislodged Daesh militants from Mosul, their de facto capital in the north of the country.

This put an end to the cross-border "caliphate" they declared in 2014 but Daesh continues to carry out ambushes, assassinations and bombings across Iraq.

Daesh militants have recently restated their loyalty to the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in what is believed to be their first public pledge of allegiance to him since the collapse of his "caliphate."

"To infuriate and terrorize the infidels, we renew our pledge of loyalty to the commander of the faithful and the caliph of the Muslims, the mujahid sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Hussaini al-Qurashi may god preserve him," extremists said in a statement posted on their social media groups.

There have been conflicting reports over whether Baghdadi, an Iraqi, is still alive. However, Hashimi told Reuters that he was believed to be hiding in the vast desert area that straddles the Syria-Iraq border.

U.S. airstrikes killed most of his top lieutenants, including Daesh's "war minister" Abu Omar al-Shishani, "governor of the Iraqi region" Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, group spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani and "governor for Syria" Abu Ali al-Anbari.

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