Syria-Iraq Border Crossings: What’s Changed?

(Damascus) With the US tightening of its embargo and economic blockade on Damascus, the long-awaited reopening of a major border crossing point between Syria and Iraq is gaining further momentum and significance.

There are three official border crossings along the 599 kilometers that forms the border line which was first defined between the two nations in the 1920-23  Paulet–Newcombe Agreement, as an amendment to the Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916. In 1932, it was finalised following a League of Nations commission review. It served as the border between the Syrian Republic and the Kingdom of Iraq until 1958, and since 1961 it has been the border between the Syrian Arab Republic and the Republic of Iraq.

The Rabia border crossing is on the Al-Shaddadah-Mosul road. The border crosses the Euphrates just north of the Al-Qa’im border crossing between Abu Kamal in Syria and Al Qa’im in Iraq.

A vehicle is transported on a platform on the Euphrates river in the northern Syrian city of Raqa, the former Syrian capital of the Islamic State Delil Souleiman/AFP)
TA vehicle is transported on a platform on the Euphrates river in the northern Syrian city of Raqa, the former Syrian capital of the Islamic State Delil Souleiman/AFP)

From the Euphrates, the border cuts across the part of the Syrian desert to the Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian border intersection. The border crossing between Al Waleed in Iraq and Al Tanf in Syria is a short distance north-east of the tripoint, and there are Palestinian refugee camps on both sides, the Al-Waleed camp and the Al Tanf camp.

On several occasions, top military and political officials in both Syrian and Iraqi including Chiefs of Staff, Defence and Foreign Ministers, have stressed the need and underlined plans to reopen at least one major border crossing between the two countries. Iraqi Foreign Affairs Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, stressed the need for such a step during recent regional tours.

The Boukamal crossing is the only potential land bridge between Iraq and Syria since Al-Tanf is home to a US military base hosting international coalition forces and Washington’s Syrian rebel allies. The military base reaches some 50 kilometers into Syrian territory, ruling out any chance for civilian or commercial activity.

Syria’s attempts to re-establish the Boukamal crossing as an operational trade route is one of many efforts made in an attempt to restore international ties. With the help of Russian mediation, Syria’s government managed to reach an agreement to reopen the Nassib border crossing along Syria’s southern border with Jordan

Last October, both Syrian President Bashar al Assad and Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari discussed the importance of working to open border crossings between the two countries. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and his Iraqi counterpart also announced that the Boukamal crossing will soon be operational.

Despite the evident Iraqi and Syrian political enthusiasm, reopening the border crossings faces serious challenges due to the situation on the ground. The US has been exerting tremendous pressure on all Arab countries in the region, as well as international countries, companies and institutions to block such economic and trade openings with Damascus. Economic sanctions against Jordanian and Lebanese businesses and companies have been reported during a meeting between the US Commercial Attaché in Amman and Jordanian businessmen. The issue of US threats was later discussed by Jordan’s parliament in an open session.

Hisham Jaber, the head of the Middle East Center for Studies and Public Relations, reaffirmed the current security risks inhibiting the revival of trade through the Boukamal crossing. Jaber, a retired Lebanese Major General and political researcher, warned against international red flags prohibiting Iran’s secured access to the Mediterranean. Iran sharing land borders with Iraq makes the Boukamal crossing all the more strategically important for all regional parties, due to the land bridge it provides between Iraq and Syria and, finally, to Beirut and the Mediterranean.

However, Jaber also said that the Al-Tanf US base, a military base for the US-led international coalition with the dedicated purpose of countering ISIS, removes any chance of the viability of the Iraqi-Syrian Boukamal crossing.

Opening border crossings alone would not necessarily guarantee a surge of trade and exports between the two nations. A Jordanian newspaper, Al-Rai, recently reported a considerable drop in Jordan’s exports to Syria in the first quarter of 2019, despite the reopening of the border crossing between Syria and Jordan late last year.

Syrian refugees walk to a camp at the Jordanian side of the Jordan-Syria border near Royashed Town in Jordan
Syrian refugees walk to a camp at the Jordanian side of the Jordan-Syria border near Royashed Town in Jordan

The issue of reopening the Boukamal border crossing was reaffirmed by Iraq’s armed forces Chief of Staff following a strategic trilateral meeting in Damascus with his Syrian and Iranian counterparts last month. “God willing, the coming days will witness the reopening of the border crossing and the continuation of visits and trade between the two countries,” Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanimi said during a news conference.

Although things have dramatically changed for the better following ISIS’ defeat across vast swathes of land in Syria and Iraq, the lack of political will from numerous local, regional and international powers will always render any moves to ease up the suffocating blockade and US-led embargo, far less effective.

The ongoing fuel crisis in Syria, affecting ordinary civilians and paralyzing sectors of the economy, is one stark example of a new type of war Syrians are bracing themselves for, a merciless economic war that is already underway.