After a long list of hurdles, complications and six years of its closure, Syria and Iraq have officially reopened the Boukamal-Qa’im border crossing between the two countries today. The lifeline gateway had been closed down by ISIS terrorists who controlled the border area before they were conclusively kicked out by the SAA units and Kurdish militias some two years ago. A deal was struck with the Kurds whose insistence to hoist their flag was utterly rejected by the Syrian government. The national flags of Syria and Iraq are now flying high over the border point open to free movement of trade, transport and individuals for the first time in over six years.
The reopening ceremony followed completion of all necessary preparations and measures in the eastern part of the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor which was liberated from ISIS by the Syrian army just over two years ago, after years of almost daily battles with terrorists in the area. The gateway is set to be the main crossing point between Iraq and Syria, trying hard to come back to life given the tight sanctions and boycott imposed by the US and its allies. The US administration has exerted tremendous pressures on the Iraqi government to prevent the reopening of this strategic border crossing, causing many delays that had to be overcome.
Two days ago, the Iraqi government endorsed the reopening of the border crossing with Syria after all necessary arrangements were put in place. The city of Boukamal and its suburbs was liberated by Syrian army units on 19 October 2017 after wiping out the last ISIS hotbeds in the region. Cutting the ribbon jointly with his Iraqi counterpart at the inauguration ceremony today, the Syrian Minister of Interior Major General Muhammad Rahmoun highlighted the significance of the vent for bilateral as well as regional trade and transportation activities. Hammoud praised both the ” heroic Iraqi and Syrian armies and their affiliates, without whose great victory over terrorists, ISIS in particular, and their sacrifices in the war, this achievement would have never materialized”.
Breaking the Land Transportation Deadlock
The importance of today’s event reaches far beyond bilateral Syrian-Iraqi trade exchanges and traffic movement; the Boukamal crossing point represents a lifeline route that extends from Lebanon, via Syria and Iraq, all the way to Iran. Hence the US objection to the move which Washington believes shall undermine US-led sanctions and tightening pressures on both Tehran and Damascus. Washington views this border opening as Tehran’s land causeway to the Mediterranean, and therefore, had to remain blocked. Hence, Iranian officials, along with their Syrian and Iraqi partners, should, and rightfully so, be raising their glasses to the occasion.
Syria’s economy, badly damaged by the 9 years of unabated war, has been further crippled by sanctions aggravated by the closure of border crossings with Iraq to the east, and previously with Jordan to the south. Borders with Lebanon were Syria’s only open breathing outlet for much of the conflict’s years. Today’s achievement will undoubtedly help Damascus break this suffocating deadlock. Out of the three main border crossing points with Iraq, this is the most important one.
Before the war broke out in 2011, Syrian public and private sectors had been providing Iraq with most of its badly needed supplies; a trade balance worth an average 3 billion US dollars annually. Given the now reopened route to Tehran, the Syrian economy is expected to benefit tremendously. In addition, the move is anticipated to help in easing up the enduring fuel crisis which has hit Syrians bad for the past few years. Millions of Iraqis and Iranians perform regular multi-million US dollars’ worth of religious tourism to some of the holiest Shiite shrines located in Syria, most notably to Sayyida Zaynab, mother of Al Hassan and Al Hussein, daughter of Ali Bin Abi Talib and Fatimah; the prophet Muhammad was Zaynab’s maternal grandfather and therefore she is a member of his Bayt.
Way Out of the Bottleneck
Severely struck by almost a decade of war and decades of alternative US-led sanctions, the Syrian ailing economy need to explore and exploit any potential avenue and chance for gradual recovery out of the bottleneck situation it has been put in. Last year, Syria’s economy hit the second-worst record trade deficit figure of 7 billion USD, compared with a deficit of 5.4 billion USD in 2017.
To comprehend the impact of sanctions and cost of conflict, all one needs is to compare the above- mentioned deficit data, with a mere 262.2 million USD in 2010, just one year before the war broke out with devastating consequences on Syria’s economy. Recovery from these dire straits requires ingenious planning and drastic measures and shall be long and painful for a population that has already put up with tremendous hardships and has had enough with the woes of the war.
The Syrian government has long decided to head East, signing several trade and cooperation agreements with countries like China, Russia, India, Pakistan among others. Whether such endeavors will make up for Syria’s already modest trade exchanges with the west, and help revamp its suffering economy, remains anybody’s wild guess.