The Iraqi border has a special strategic appeal. It was once called the “Eastern Front” with Iran. The western side has now become the “front” with Iran as well. With undeclared insistence that is spoiled only by “mysterious raids”, a hidden US-Iranian struggle to capture the Iraqi-Syrian borders is raging.
A new player has joined the battle. Russia has plunged into this complex theater, expanding its military presence in the US sphere of influence and meddling with Al-Tanf base through the gate of Al-Rakban camp. Talks emerged about some Syrian fighters from the pro-Washington forces abandoning their camps and training to attack US-protected Syrian oil fields.
Back in 2017, the expulsion of ISIS by various Iraqi forces led to the deployment of many military and paramilitary forces in the Al-Qaim-Albukamal border area.
Many militias have had close links with Iran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). These ties helped in transforming the border region to become a passage for Tehran through which it could extend its regional influence.
In March 2019, Washington announced the complete eradication of ISIS by liberating Al-Baghouz, in cooperation with its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces.
This has reinforced the United States and Israel’s view of the border region as a pivotal front in efforts to contain Iranian influence.
In recent years, Iran’s support for the Syrian and Iraqi governments in their fight against their armed opponents strengthened Tehran’s ties with the two countries. Nevertheless, the IRGC established an extended network of cross-border paramilitary groups that restricted the freedom of both governments to operate independently of Iranian interests.
The network includes fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria who fought alongside Iraqi and Syrian government forces against ISIS or Syrian opponents, making the two governments increasingly dependent on such support, even if the situation is more complicated in Syria due to the role of Russia and Turkey.
Several studies offer an integrated assessment of the reasons that prompted Iran to reinforce its presence in Al-Qaim-Albukamal. The Carnegie paper mentioned four reasons: First, Tehran seeks to prevent ISIS from rebuilding its forces inside the areas bordering Iraq and Syria.
Second, securing a land corridor to link areas under Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, to control the movement of people, weapons, and goods across the border.
Third, Tehran wants to block Washington’s attempts to use the border region as a base to counter Iranian influence. Fourth, Iran needs to retain its ability to militarily reinforce Hezbollah in Lebanon and deploy other militias backed by the Iranian Guards in the Fertile Crescent region in the event of a conflict with Israel.
The German Institute for International and Security Affairs says that Iran’s establishment of a land corridor to link it with Lebanon via Iraq and Syria will enable it to better support its affiliated groups in the three countries, as well as to transfer weapons and equipment to Hezbollah.
The US Ambitions
US officials have repeatedly said that one of their main goals in Syria was to “curb” or “end” Iran’s influence. Through the international coalition, Washington supports the Syrian Democratic Forces in their control of the east of the Euphrates with soldiers, land bases, air cover and oil protection equipment.
The US has two bases in Iraq and Syria: One of them is in Tanf, near the Tanf-Al-Walid border crossing, which is currently closed between Syria and Iraq. The other base, Ain Al-Assad, is located in Al-Anbar Governorate, near the Al-Baghdadi suburb. US President Donald Trump visited the base in December 2018 and announced that it would be used to keep Washington’s eye on Iranian activities in the region.
Besides, US forces were earlier deployed near the old railway station in Al-Qaim during the battle against ISIS. The Carnegie paper says militias backed by the IRGC have used the US deployment in western Iraq to justify their presence near the border. Iraqi officials from Anbar said the United States was trying to build new bases in the city of Rummaneh, north of Al-Qaim.
On December 29, 2019, US forces launched airstrikes against factions supported by the IRGC near the border, three of them in Iraq and two in Syria. The move sparked strong condemnations from the Iraqi government.
Washington said that the airstrikes were in response to attacks by the Hezbollah brigades against a military base in northern Iraq, which killed a US military contractor.
The attack aggravated tension between the United States and Iranian-backed groups and the Iraqi government, as the Trump administration ordered the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Al-Quds Force.
Iran avenged the killing by firing missiles against two US military bases in Iraq.
The Economic Dimension
There is another dimension to the rivalry between the United States and Iran to rebuild the border area and the roads leading to the region.
The German Institute cites an economic reason: It has been known since 2013 that the Belt and Road initiative is a priority in Chinese foreign policy to facilitate trade between East and West.
In the initial plans to link China with Europe, the priority was to build northern routes through Russia and Central Asia, along with a sea route through the Arabian Gulf. Nevertheless, Tehran is trying to draw Beijing’s interest in a southern land route linking Iran, Iraq and Syria with the Mediterranean Sea and then to Europe.
In November 2018, Iran revealed a plan to build a railway linking the Shalamcheh border crossing located on the Iran-Iraq border with the Basra port in southeastern Iraq. The line is then supposed to extend towards the Syrian coast.
Sources quoted by the researchers of the Carnegie paper talking about a project that includes building a network of highways between Baghdad and the two border crossings - frall on the Jordanian border and Al-Tanf on the Syrian border. The highway network is also to be connected via a secondary road from Rutba to the Al-Qaim-Albukamal border crossing, with an extension into Syria from the Al-Qaim-Albukamal road.
In March 2017, the government of Haider al-Baghdadi approved a proposal from the Anbar province to grant a US company a contract to invest in highway repairs and protect construction workers and travelers.
The contract also included a plan to develop an international highway linking Baghdad and Arar on the Saudi border, as well as building a new highway linking Anbar directly to the border.
But the project has faced opposition from many members of the Iraqi parliament, including groups allied to Iran. The wave of controversy led to the abandonment of the contract and the assignment of Iraqi security forces with the task of protecting the highway.
According to a former Anbar official, who was directly involved in the talks, pro-Iranian groups rallied against the project because they saw it as a US attempt to expand its influence inside Anbar and western Iraq.
Pro-Iranian groups have sought to develop alternative plans to use the highways in Iraq to expand and consolidate their influence along the border.
There are currently attempts to build a road from Karbala to Al-Qaim-Albukamal region to facilitate the movement of Popular Mobilization Forces and civilians, who visit shrines in Syria.
Tehran and its allies are seeking to connect the Al-Qaim-Albukamal region to a wider network of pro-Iranian groups to unite them in the face of the United States and its allies.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) affirmed that the Iranian forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah continue recruitment operations in a covert and public manner in the western banks of the Euphrates.
It said that around 3,600 young Syrian men of different ages were recruited into the ranks of Iranian forces and affiliated militias, amid the US-Iranian conflict and Russia’s entry on the line by expanding its deployment east of the Euphrates, establishing a military base in Qamishli and deploying a missile system under the US umbrella.
The Syrian-Iraqi border has turned into a complex front for regional-international conflict.
The strategies of these countries depend on their ability to penetrate the local environment, which has transferred its allegiance over decades and years from one party to another.