Syria and Iraq on Monday formally opened a key border crossing that lies along the principal route of Iran’s emerging land bridge to the Mediterranean via Baghdad and Damascus. The opening threatens to increase the volume of weapons and materiel that Iran can move across the bridge as part of its effort to establish a dominant position in the Levant.
In 2012, as Syria descended into civil war, Iraq closed the main border crossing between the two countries, which connects al-Qaim on the Iraqi side to Albu Kamal in Syria. Syrian regime forces and their Iranian-backed counterparts reclaimed Albu Kamal in November 2017, taking it back from the Islamic State. Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shiite militia loyal to Tehran, participated in the effort to retake Albu Kamal and continues to exert a heavy influence in the vicinity. Iran is also employing cash, services, and others forms of aid to build political support and promote its militant brand of Shiite Islam.
The al-Qaim-Albu Kamal border crossing has unique strategic value for Iran, since the other two official crossings between Iraq and Syria are under the control of U.S. or U.S.-aligned forces. To the southwest, U.S. troops and local partners have secured al-Tanf, while Ya’rubiyah to the northeast is in the hands of Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies.
Reports indicate that Iran had begun to move weapons through Albu Kamal long before the formal opening of the border. After an air strike killed more than a dozen Kataib Hezbollah fighters in June 2018, The Wall Street Journal reported that Israel launched the attack to disrupt the militia’s efforts “to traffic Iranian weapons into Syria” in tandem with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
While Israel has attacked hundreds of targets in western Syria, the June 2018 attack in the east remained an outlier until this summer, when a wave of strikes began to hit Shiite militia targets on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. Israel has not acknowledged any of the strikes inside Iraq, although U.S. officials said Israeli planes struck Shiite militia targets north of Baghdad in late August.
The pace of strikes accelerated in September, with three attacks on targets near Albu Kamal and two inside Iraq. After weeks of silence, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi suggested Israel was responsible for the explosions. While refusing to discuss specifics, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu said in August, “Iran doesn’t have immunity anywhere.”
If Tehran exploits the re-opening of the al-Qaim-Albu Kamal border to accelerate shipments of materiel to the Levant, Israel is likely to escalate its counterattacks. If left uncontested, an increase in weapons traffic across the land bridge would enhance the ability of Tehran and its proxies to project power against the U.S. position in Syria and against Israel from bases inside Syria and Lebanon. During the war in Syria, Iran has relied mainly on air transport to move weapons and fighters into Syria, yet the capacity of this air bridge is limited and more costly than employing ground transport.
The U.S. has a compelling interest in preventing Iran from exploiting the land bridge to threaten America’s footing in Syria, reinforce Hezbollah’s dominant position in Lebanon, preserve Tehran’s client state in Syria, and undermine the independence of Iraq’s elected government. Therefore, the U.S. should carefully monitor the newly opened border crossing to determine if it is under effective control of Tehran’s proxies. If so, Washington should pressure Baghdad to reassert control or close the border.
David Adesnik is the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Andrew Gabel is a research analyst. 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 @adesnik and @Andrew_B_Gabel. 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.