After years of closure, on September 30, Syria and Iraq reopened their main border crossing between Albukamal and Qaim. Reopening the crossing in Deir ez-Zor province in eastern Syria is of strategic importance to Iran. The importance of Albu Kamal is that it is the crossing of Tehran- Mediterranean route. The Quds Force commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Qasem Soleimani, appealed for control of Albukamal before the arrival of the international coalition forces to it after the expulsion of ISIS in 2017, what are the plans of the Iranian decision-maker in that province? The reopening of the Abu kamal crossing reopens questions about the strategic and economic importance of the crossing and its implications for the conflict of actors in the region specifically between the USA and Iran.
The FSA had taken control of the Albukamal border crossing in mid-2012, the year it witnessed control of most border crossings with Iraq and Turkey, following the withdrawal of regime forces, and before the Syrian revolution that began in March 2011, there were three main crossings between Iraq Syria, the Albukamal-Qaim, and the Yarubiyah crossing that Rabia meets on the Iraqi side, which the FSA exchanged control with regime forces in 2012, before ISIS attempted to control it in 2013 and 2014, but failed to do so. It was controlled by Kurdish factions in October 2014 and is still under control of them so far, the third crossing is al-Tanf, which al-Walid meets on the Iraqi side, which ISIS took control of in mid-2015 after the regime forces withdrew from it, but the FSA took control in March 2016, and then turned into a military base for the international coalition led by the United States, the crossing was a major between Iraq and Syria and was witnessing an active trade movement before 2011.
Iranian militias have occupied the town of Albukamal and its countryside since late 2017 following the elimination of ISIS, which has dominated the region for years, with the removal of the earthen berm between the two countries at the height of its rush in 2014 and 2015, in return , the Iraqi Popular Mobilization factions linked to the Revolutionary Guard control on the al-Qaim crossing since the end of 2017, following the elimination of ISIS in the border area between Syria and Iraq.The control of Iranian militias in Syria are not confined to the town of Albukamal and its countryside only as Hizbullah, and militias of Haidarion, Fatimion and Zeinabiyun “ have control over the town of Al Mayadeen, west Al Bu- Kamal, both cities on the southern bank of the Euphrates River that cuts Deir ez-Zor province into two halves, noting that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have control over its northern part in exchange for the control of Iranian militias and regime forces that control the city of Deir Ezzor , the center of the province, in the southern part .
At the same time, Iran is building two new military bases in the region: one in the western outskirts of the city of al-Mayadeen, and the other , larger , in Albukamal, called “Imam Ali,” and they are built in cooperation with “Jihad al-Bina” and “Imam Hussein Organization,” Two Iranian-sponsored institutions with branches in the cities of Deir Ezzor, Al-Mayadeen, and Albukamal, these institutions will reinforce Tehran’s goal of controlling a major strategic road: from Albukamal in the north to the T-2 oil pumping station, and then west to Altiyas, which includes the pumping station / Syrian Air Base “T-4”, and finally to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s main stronghold, and various foreign forces carried out air strikes on parts of the road, but the IRGC and its proxies reduced its vulnerability to such operations by hiding inside civilian homes, Iran provided funding for the rehabilitation of the Albukamal crossing and expelled elements loyal to the regime on July 27. And today , the regime no longer exists , and the control of the crossing is completely Iranian.
Although Shiite militias in Deir ez-Zor have Afghan and Pakistani factions, the PMF is Iran’s main financial channel in the province, particularly in Albukamal, and salaries and distribution methods vary according to the nationality of the recruiter, for example Iraqis in Syria receive about $ 400 a month via MasterCard cards given to them by the PMF, while fighters from other nationalities receive cash and personal cash, often withdrawn from PMU-managed banks in Iraq , a possible violation of the US punishment policy .
As for local Syrian conscripts , their salaries are paid directly by the Revolutionary Guards in amounts that depend on their individual tasks , those who serve in their towns and villages receive $ 100 a month, while those who head to the front lines receive $ 150, in addition to military vehicles and fuel vouchers and funds allocated to various expenses and according to local anti-regime figures, these well-organized IRGC financial practices far outweigh the Assad regime’s “chaotic and bankrupt” security structure, as happened when the ISIS terrorist group took over Region, financial incentives of «Revolutionary Guards» attract unemployed and poor Syrian men , as well as foreign fighters.
In addition, Shia conscripts and their families are guaranteed housing in properties bought and run by Iranian businessmen. Since November 2018, more than 100 foreign Shia families have settled in the southern neighborhoods of Mayadeen, and a similar number of Iraqi Shia families in Albukamal , and therse numbers have increased definitely since then.
It is clear that the Israeli and American strategy in the east of Syria revolves around not allowing the Iranians to establish their military, economic and social footholds in the region, to create facts on the ground that are difficult to overcome in any future settlement of the Syrian issue. Observers of the Syrian affairs believe that technically the crossing does not add anything ne to the transfer of troops (Iranian and Iraqi militias ) and military equipment, pointing out that these militias are using other military crossings along the border to move between the two countries and smuggling operations. They believe that the opening has political messages,” adding : The announcement of the opening of the crossing with Iranian support carries a message to the United States and Israel, which targeted the region with several air strikes at various times, that Iran is continuing its project in Syria, as well as a political message in support of the Assad regime in its attempts to continue again in the Arab area.
The IRGC and PMF penetrate the social fabric of the majority of the Sunni Arab population in Deir ez-Zor province through a variety of socio-economic activities, helping these forces to impose the Twelver Shi’ism on local populations who suffer from Financial hardship.
For example, with the blessing of the Assad regime, the Iranian Cultural Center in Deir ez-Zor mainly forces school and university students to take part in events organized by the center, and the Revolutionary Youth Union affiliated to Baath Party ordered the local education directorate to organize field trips to attend Shiite religious ceremonies, Iranian Revolutionary Guards lectures, short story writing events and sports competitions, and in return , students earn extra credits and financial aid.
Similarly, scholarships for study abroad are widely advertised, aimed at students interested in pursuing religious studies and returning to Syria as missionaries of the Twelver Doctrine. Scholarships are allocated to age groups from primary school children to students in their 30s . About 100 students from Deir ez-Zor have already traveled to Iran to join this program (juniors with their parents). In addition, Iranian professors run three schools in Mayadeen, Albukamal and Deir ez-Zor, where they teach Persian language and history alongside to other lessons, and according to some reports about two hundred students attend these schools.
Some local tribes in Deir ez-Zor play a key role in implementing this Iranian agenda. In areas such as Sbeikhan and al-Mayadeen, the IRGC has ordered tribal Sheikhs to invite residents to attend events organized in Shia Husseiniya, where awards and aid are distributed to orphans, women and families of martyrs. Local Sources indicate also that Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir of the Baqarah tribe runs an Iranian-backed militia in Muhaimida . Similarly, Saleh Mohammed Ismail al-Ba’aj, an official of the Ba’ajin tribe in al-Mayadeen, is Tehran’s main ally in spreading the doctrine of the Twelver in cooperation with Iranian Cultural center “in Damascus, in addition to his role as a religious consultant for « Brigade Abou El Fadl Abbas », a unit of militia loyal to Assad composed of Iraqi and Lebanese fighters.
The “stick” in this “stick and carrot” approach has also become evident. Last year, for example, the Syrian authorities arrested 20 Sunni imams from Sabikhan, al-Mayadeen, Albukamal and other cities for refusing to call for Shia prayer, and in return, the imams who responded to the call , have received an increase in wages.
Deir ez-Zor’s center was strengthened in achieving Iran’s religious and strategic goals last July, when the Quds Force commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Qasem Soleimani, visited the town of Albukamal personally, where he met with militia leaders to establish a new unit, under the name ” the Brigade of shrines guards, which will be charged with defending the newly built Shiite shrines in Deir ez-Zor, and by building new Shiite shrines in or near ancient holy sites previously established by Sunni dynasties, the IRGC seeks to form local religious legitimacy. This task will be well aligned with many humanitarian organizations created by Iran in the province, which seek to make the local population knowing to Shiite faiths while distributing aid to them.
In short, the opening of the crossing is the culmination of an Iranian effort to take full control of eastern Syria, and a major step towards consolidating its influence in eastern Syria, through the opening of the Syrian Albukamal crossing – the Iraqi Qaim crossing, in an area entirely subject to Iranian Revolutionary Guards militias, it is likely to be an Iranian military gateway to Syria more than a commercial crossing, as Iran has long sought to establish a long land corridor, starting from its territory and ending in Lebanon, passing through Iraq and Syria. The crossing seems to be the main building block of this project, which the Israeli and American sides are trying to undermine, by launching Aerial attacks on positions of Iranian militias in the Reev of eastern Deir Ez-zor.
Iranian Studies Unit
Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies