Iraq is set to open a vital border crossing with Syria near the town of al-Qaim, according to recent reports, potentially allowing Iran to send a much greater volume of weapons to Syria by land. While Iran has relied mainly on commercial aircraft for the transport of weapons and fighters, this “land bridge” may enable Tehran to expand such efforts considerably.
Iran supports more than a dozen Shiite militias fighting in Iraq and Syria. The regime in Tehran has also been sending hardware and other materiel to Syria in an effort to open up a second front against Israel, alongside the southern Lebanon front held by Hezbollah.
Al-Qaim sits just inside Iraqi territory opposite the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal. By expelling Islamic State fighters from Albu Kamal in November 2017, Iranian-backed militias opened the first land route from Baghdad to Damascus that did not cross terrain held by U.S. troops or their local partners. In June 2018, an Israeli air strike near Albu Kamal killed more than 20 members of the Iraqi Shiite militia Kataib Hezbollah (KH), who were engaged in the shipment of weapons to Syria. The State Department has designated KH as a foreign terrorist organization; it operates under control of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
KH has also established a presence on the Iraqi side of the border. Although the population of western Iraq near the Syrian border is overwhelmingly Sunni, KH participated in operations to reclaim the area from the Islamic State. Residents of al-Qaim say KH has kept them from returning to the town’s 1,500 farms by declaring the land part of a security zone. The militia also controls the roads in and out of al-Qaim.
Israeli reports suggest that Shiite militias are using dirt bypass roads built by the Islamic State to circumvent the closed crossing from al-Qaim to Albu Kamal. If Shiite militias assume control of the crossing after it reopens, Iranian shipments could remain on the highway instead of taking the bypass roads.
If Iran secures this improved land bridge running through al-Qaim and Albu Kamal, it could move greater volumes of cargo at a lower cost per unit. At present, Iran’s “air bridge” relies on a very limited supply of commercial aircraft, each with a limited carrying capacity. Sea vessels can accommodate more goods than trucks or planes, but the U.S. has interdicted weapons shipments and is enforcing sanctions on illicit shipments of crude oil, as well.
The U.S. should press firmly for the Iraqi government to put al-Qaim and its border crossing in the hands of security force units loyal to Baghdad, not Tehran. It may also be necessary to step up surveillance of the area.
One option for exerting pressure on Baghdad is to impose sanctions on additional Iranian-backed militias, building on the recent designation of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and its leader, Akram al-Kabi. The U.S. should assess what companies and organizations provide these militias with material support, making them susceptible to sanctions, as well.
Al-Qaim’s position astride Iran’s emerging land corridor to the Mediterranean makes it too important for the U.S. to ignore. While American policymakers must be sensitive to Iraq’s domestic political pressures – especially with the Iraqi parliament set to consider two bills that could jeopardize the status of American troops in Iraq – the administration must deny Iran access to a gateway for weapons, fighters, and other illicit goods.
Andrew Gabel is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where David Adesnik is director of research. Both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and its Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow Andrew and David on Twitter at @Andrew_B_Gabel and @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD, @FDD_CMPP, and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.