A Key Border Crossing between Iraq and Syria Is about to Fall into Iranian Hands

March 27 2019

In November 2017, Iran-backed militias drove Islamic State forces from the Syrian town of Abu Kamal, which lies on the west bank of the Euphrates near the border with Iraq. Since then, Iran and its proxies have used back roads in the area to send military equipment into Syria. Iraq now plans to open the official border crossing at the adjacent Iraqi city of al-Qaim, which, however, according to Andrew Gabel and David Adesnik, will allow the Islamic Republic to make far more efficient its “land bridge” for sending troops and weapons to Israel’s borders:

Kataib Hizballah, [one of the most important Iran-backed militias in Iraq], has [already] established a presence on the Iraqi side of the border. Although the population of western Iraq near the Syrian border is overwhelmingly Sunni, [Shiite] Kataib Hizballah participated in operations to reclaim the area from Islamic State. Residents of al-Qaim say the militia has kept them from returning to the town’s 1,500 farms by declaring the land part of a security zone. It also controls the roads in and out of al-Qaim. . . .

If Iran secures this improved land bridge running through al-Qaim and Abu Kamal, it could move greater volumes of cargo at a lower cost per unit. At present, Iran’s “air bridge” relies on a very limited supply of commercial aircraft, each with a limited carrying capacity. Sea vessels can accommodate more goods than trucks or planes, but the U.S. has interdicted weapons shipments and is enforcing sanctions on illicit shipments of crude oil as well.

The U.S. should press firmly for the Iraqi government to put al-Qaim and its border crossing in the hands of security-force units loyal to Baghdad, not Tehran. It may also be necessary to step up surveillance of the area. Al-Qaim’s position astride Iran’s emerging land corridor to the Mediterranean makes it too important for the U.S. to ignore. While American policymakers must be sensitive to Iraq’s domestic political pressures—especially with the Iraqi parliament set to consider two bills that could jeopardize the status of American troops in Iraq—the administration must deny Iran access to a gateway for weapons, fighters, and other illicit goods.

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More about: Iran, Iraq, Israeli Security, Politics & Current Affairs, Syria, U.S. Foreign policy


What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy