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.