Researcher Shatha Khalil *
Translated by : mudhaffar al-kusairi
A few hundred meters separates the Syrian city of Albukamal from the Iraqi city of Qaim, and the two cities historically have tribal and family relations for decades and are of strategic importance to both countries (Iraq and Syria).
Five years after its closure due to ISIS control in 2014, the Iraqi Border Entry Authority announces and on the order of Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi to open the Al-Qaim crossing on the Iraq-Syria border, a vital economic gateway serving the two countries.
Al-Bukamal is strategically located on the banks of the Euphrates River in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, making it a military attraction for foreign forces.
Syria is linked with Iraq to three border crossings, two of which are under the control of US forces, the first is the “Arabiya – Rabia”, which connects the far north-east of Syria to Iraqi territory, and controlled by the US-led coalition forces taking from the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) as a front on the crossing , the second, Al-Walid-Al-Tanf crossing , is directly controlled by US and British forces.
The third crossing is “Albukamal-Qaim”, which the Syrian regime, Iraqi forces and their allies on both sides of the border were able to control at the end of 2017 from militants of the terrorist organization ISIS, which was closed in 2014 on the Iraqi city of Qaim, and talk of rehabilitation began last March. .
The opening was postponed in previous periods, mainly because of maintenance and logistical arrangements for electricity and water.
The first step was to re-open the land border between the two countries last April, when two buses of visitors from Iraq crossed into Syria from the Qaim border crossing on the Iraqi side.
Al-Bukamal crossing, Tehran-Baghdad – Beirut Gate:
In a move that carries military-political messages, before they are economic, because the road from Albukamal to Damascus is still among the totally unsafe roads, because IS cells are in desert pockets near the towns of Shula, Kajab and Sokhna, which the road to Damascus passes close to it.
The government of the Syrian regime, in coordination with its Iraqi counterpart, is moving to reopen the Albukamal crossing between Iraq, Syria and Iran.
The opening of the crossing is important for the three countries because it is an exceptional place for Tehran, which faces the second US sanctions package, which came into effect on November 5, mainly involving the oil and banking sectors.
Tehran is firmly working to open an outlet from these sanctions, through countries with influence in the Middle East, specifically Iraq, although the latter formally announced in August, through his former prime minister, that “in principle, we are against sanctions in the region, but we will abide by them to protect the interests of our people.”
The highway, which passes through the crossing, connects the two countries, as it comes from Baghdad to Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit and Haditha to the Qaim, and then enters Syria, heading north towards the city of Mayadeen and then Deir Ezzor, and branching there into two roads, one towards Aleppo and Latakia on the Mediterranean Sea, and the second Heading south, passing through the towns of Kajab and Sokhna in the Syrian desert, then the city of Palmyra, from which it is branching in two ways, one towards Al-Farkalus and then the city of Homs, and the second heading towards the eastern Qalamoun of Reef Damascus , reaching the Syrian capital, where it is connected to the international roads that connect Damascus to Lebanon and southern Syria.
However, the priority of the military-political importance of the crossing for Iran, Iraq and Syria does not negate the economic importance, as it allows the return of the road of land trade, from Tehran and Baghdad, to Damascus and Beirut, as the first crossing for Syria opened to the movement of land trade with neighboring countries, in years except for the crossings with Lebanon, which remained open to the movement of travelers and trade.
For his part, the strategic expert Ali Fadlallah explains , the move to reopen the Al-Qaim-Albukamal crossing, as it comes under the “great coordination between the Iraqi and Syrian governments,” adding : “The problem is that this crossing is located in an inflamed area and threatened by security.”
He adds, ” some of the terrorist pockets are still existed in the borders of western region of Iraq , as well as Syrian territory is more difficult, because there are differences and intersections between more than a force present in Syria, and the region in general is still witnessing security operations on both sides,” and there is coordination and exchange of information between the Iraqi and Syrian government in order to secure the path that leads to the crossing, pointing out that the importance of the crossing lies in two dimensions, the first strategic and the second economic, “and” Iraq sees by integrating the economy with politics that it will constitute a pressure card on the Syrian regime to secure the region ” , in addition to its importance to Global trade , in the presence of a conflict on this road, to be in the future a path for the international trade.
Fadlallah believes that the benefit is a tripartite, as the Iraqi side will benefit from the crossing as it will be under the control of Iraqi forces without contact any foreign force, while the Syrian regime may get help from the second forces such as Iranian militias or others, explaining that “Syria is suffering from the fragile security situation and human resources of the army, which drives Tehran to contribute to secure the transfer of goods and trade exchange between Iraq and Syria, “in addition to the political and economic benefit of Iraq and Syria from the reopening of the crossing, and that” is the path of civil trade, not military, because Syria suffers, and Iran does not want Syria to be broken and wants to maintain logistics line between Iraq and Syria remains, believing that America will try to prevent the opening of the crossing, or at least not arriving a full capacity.
Iran is working hard to keep the Albukamal border crossing under its control, the only Syrian-Iraqi crossing under Iranian control, to strengthen its influence in the Middle East and mitigate the impact of US sanctions.
In short, we ask: will this land corridor be, in the short term, a vital asset to the Iranian regime that is working to expand trade and minimize the impact of US sanctions on its economy? Or will the opening of Al-Bukamal Crossing be a great leap in the level of Iraqi-Syrian trade exchange for the benefit of both peoples.
The Syrian-Iraqi border plays a new role in the emerging regional rivalry between Iran and Israel. The two countries now consider the border to be of strategic importance. In Tehran’s view, controlling the border means having the ability to transfer Iranian forces and militias to Syria and Lebanon in the event of a wider conflict with Israel and the latter is seeking to prevent this from happening.
The importance of the crossing will remain strategic in the future. The two cities have become much more than a border crossing and they reflect in this regard an issue with regional implications.
Economic Studies Unit
Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies