Iraq to Reopen Strategic Lifeline Crossing with Syria

(Damascus) After a prolonged delay due to field and political complications associated with the step, Iraq and Syria have announced 1st September as the official inauguration day for the reopening of a major border crossing point that has been closed for the past five years.

Syrian and Iraqi commanders met at border area where work has been underway for months. They met to coordinate final measures and verify that the crossing point was ready for resumption of work and handling the heavy traffic of transportation trucks and other vehicles anticipated to flood the only large border crossing in operation between the two countries.

Statements issued in both Damascus and Baghdad following the joint reconnaissance tour, reiterated that “commanders from the Syrian and Iraqi armies conducted a joint reconnaissance tour of the border region as they prepare to reopen the key crossing between the cities of Al Boukamal (Syria) and Al-Qa’im (Iraq)”.

More than just a crossing

Officers from the Syrian and Iraqi armies were briefed on the situation along the border, (approximately 635 kilometers long), which has witnessed some of the fiercest battles against ISIS terrorists. The showdown culminated last year in ousting ISIS/ISIL terrorists completely from the area and much of Syria and Iraq. Some scattered ISIS cells and lone wolves are still believed to hide and conduct limited hit and run attacks against the Syrian and Iraqi armies, out of the so-called ‘Triangle’ striding the borders between Jordan, Syria and Iraq.

The significance of reopening this crossing reaches far beyond the two neighbouring Arab nations, observers say, for it shall also pave the way for Iran to break free from heavy US sanctions on its exports. Syria too has been under hefty sanctions by the US and European Union for much of the 8 and a half years of war in the country. The three nations have long cherished an international highway that links Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, and eventually Lebanon.

The Local Council of Al Anbar has pledged some 1.5 billion Iraqi dinars (1.25 million US dollars) as part of its efforts to reopen Al Qa’im crossing, which it says shall create jobs for the unemployed, bring Syrian goods to the province and restore the activities of trade and transportation fleet between the two countries. Iraq’s Prime Minister has instructed the reopening of the crossing last February, but action has been stalled for a variety of logistical, operational and not least, political reasons.

US prohibitions or pretexts?

The United States has repeatedly voiced its fears that such a step would not only ease up sanctions impact on both Damascus and Tehran, but would allow Iran to supply arms to its militias operating in Syria, and more dangerously, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Whereas Iranian officials have maintained that the land lifeline shall make it much easier for goods transportation between the three nations, and for Iranian pilgrims to visit some of the holiest Shiite places in Iraq and Syria.

The US has continuously opposed, and pressurized the Iraqi government not to be part of a strategic railway project long envisaged the Iranians, that runs all the way from Tehran, across Iraq, to Damascus.  Such a lifeline track is bound to relieve much of the pressure of tightened US-led sanctions that have affected oil and other vital industrial supplies reaching Syria, and revamp bilateral as well as regional export and import activities.

Maintaining neutral ground

Throughout the eight years of Syria war, Iraq, although at least theoretically allied with the US, has maintained strong ties with both Tehran and Damascus, some claim much to the dismay of Washington. The US still maintains a heavy military presence, and its largest ever embassy compound anywhere in the world is in Baghdad. This, coupled with the fact that post-Saddam Iraqi governments have had serious challenges and confrontations with both Erdogan’s Turkey as well as Barzani’s separatist Kurds in the north, explain and even justify why Baghdad has not severed its ties with Tehran and Damascus. In the complicated labyrinth of regional politics, one could not afford to burn all boats for whatever reason; Iraqi politicians were no exception.

Flag, no flag!

Iraq had rejected earlier persistent demands made by Kurdish US-backed SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) to hoist their own flag instead of the recognized national flag of the Syrian Arab Republic, as a precondition for reopening the crossing. That obstacle seems to have been overcome, and unless a last-minute hurdle pops up, one of the official three strategically important crossings between Iraq and Syria could, in a couple of weeks’ time, usher a big opening in the solid wall of trade sanctions that has crippled much of the Syrian economy, already seriously damaged by a devastating and unforgiving war.