A key border crossing between Syria and Iraq re-opened on Monday after a month of delays and mysterious airstrikes had caused concern about what might be going on there.
The Albukamal-Al Qaim border crossing is a key conduit for re-establishing links between Iraq and Syria, but it is also controversial because of concerns that it may enable Iran to move militias and weapons across. Iran likely didn't need a public ceremony to move weapons secretly, so the real significance is that it brings into the open a crossing that was ostensibly closed for years.
Albukamal and Al-Qaim were seized by ISIS and affiliated groups in 2014, and ISIS used it as a hub to connect its areas in Syria and Iraq. At the time this sleepy border area seemed less consequential. However, in 2017 the Syrian regime and Iraqi forces made their way back to the border. This led to concerns that members of Iranian-backed militias, often called the Popular Mobilization Units, might use the area to transfer people and weapons across the border.
This seemed to be the case in 2017 when elements of Kata'aib Hezbollah, a group sanctioned by the US which is part of the PMU, moved some units to the Syrian side from Iraq. Mysterious airstrikes struck some of these militias in the summer of 2018 and again in the summer and fall of 2019 as reports emerged that Iran was building a base near Albukamal.
On September 9, airstrikes ripped apart warehouses at the alleged base, and more airstrikes in mid and late September have hit some areas near the crossing. Nevertheless, after more than a year of waiting for the border itself to open the day finally arrived on September 30.
Monday Syrian state TV SANA was on location to celebrate the opening, which feels like a national success for the Syrian regime. Photos of Bashar al-Assad, the president, festooned the area. Journalists were invited and soldiers and others were cheerful. Interior Minister Mohammed Khaled al-Rahmoun was present and gave a short statement. He stressed this "great achievement" of Syria and praised the sacrifices of the Syrian army and the Iraqis against "terrorists." At least eight posters of Assad, in various poses, looked on, signaling that the Syrian regime has gone to its usual lengths to stress that one person is very important in this endeavor. To get to the crossing one must pass through one roundabout with a photo of Assad and then around a second poster of Assad before reaching the final Assad poster at the crossing itself.
On the Iraqi side things were a bit more boring. There are mostly Iraqi flags, shown on the film of the opening, and less people were present. The PMU is very proud and one post from the location claimed that the PMU will "hold the security file" at the border. It is great "commercial significance," the source wrote. "It is a blow to America and the forces supporting terrorism," say PMU supporters. This is interesting because it is US forces in the anti-ISIS Coalition who have assisted the Iraqi Security forces in defeating ISIS. Yet the PMU, which is paid official government salaries as part of the security forces, regularly incite against the US, pushing conspiracies claiming the US supports ISIS.
Photos showed police and soldiers at the site. Iraqis and Syrians posed together for some photos. No one seemed jittery, despite reports almost every day over the last week indicating alleged airstrikes in the area. Al-Masdar even reported yesterday that air defense was activated in the area. Image Sat International published photos following up on allegations that construction at an Iranian "Imam Ali" base was ongoing near the crossing.
The crossing may bolster Iran's pursuit of a "land bridge" stretching through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon.
The opening comes the same day that the chief of the IRGC in Iran, Hossein Salami, said the goal of Iran was to destroy Israel. "Destroying the Zionist entity is not just a dream anymore," he said, according to reports. That may lead to concerns that the crossing will be part of Iran's "land bridge" stretching across Iraq into Syria and Lebanon which Iran uses to support its allies across the region, including IRGC bases in Syria, Hezbollah and also Shi'ite militias in Iraq. For instance on August 24 Israel struck an IRGC-backed "killer drone" team near the Golan. On September 9 Shi'ite militias near Damascus tried to fire a rocket at Israel. Hezbollah is seeking precision guidance for its 150,000 missiles. If the PMU holds the security file at the Al-Qaim side of the crossing then this will lead to concerns that militias linked to the IRGC may exploit the crossing.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.