Iraq and Syria open border crossing closed since 2012
QAIM, Iraq (AP) — Iraq and Syria on Monday opened a key border crossing between the two neighboring countries, seven years after it was closed during Syria’s civil war and the battle against the Islamic State group.
The opening of the crossing linking the Iraqi town of Qaim and Syria’s Boukamal is expected to strengthen trade between the two Arab countries.
But it is also a boost to Iran’s influence in the region, allowing Iran-backed militias in Iraq easier access to eastern Syria at a time of soaring tensions in the region between Tehran and Washington following the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. The area has been a point of friction between U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, and Syrian government troops and their Iranian-backed allies.
In a symbolic gesture, Syrian Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Mohammed Khaled Rahmoun, accompanied by Syrian troops, crossed onto the Iraqi side of the border, where troops from both countries hugged and took selfies. Scores of Iraqis and Syrians who live in the border towns also attended the ceremony.
“The opening of this border crossing is the result of victories achieved by our people in Syria and Iraq against terrorist organizations,” Rahmoun said.
The Boukamal crossing was closed in 2012 as rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad seized large parts of eastern Syria.
Qaim and Boukamal were then controlled by the Islamic State group until 2017, when Syrian and Iraqi troops captured the towns from the extremists. The group’s territorial defeat was announced in Syria earlier this year.
Kadhim Mohammed, who represented Iraq’s prime minister at the ceremony, said the opening of the border “opens a new page that represents reconstruction.”
The border brings further relief to Assad’s government after border crossings with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights manned by U.N. peacekeepers were reopened last year. After eight years of war, Assad — with strong backing from Russia and Iran — has recaptured most of the country from rebels, and there is growing support within the Arab League for Damascus’ readmission.
Iraqi authorities had set up tents for Monday’s ceremony amid tight security, with troops deployed around the crossing. Despite their official defeat, IS sleeper cells are still blamed for deadly attacks on both sides of the border.
“The opening of Boukamal-Qaim crossing is a victory for Syrian and Iraqi friendship against takfiri terrorism,” read a banner placed on the Syrian side of the border, a reference to the extremist ideology of the IS. The group once controlled large parts of Syria and Iraq where its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a so-called caliphate in 2014. The group lost its last sliver of land in eastern Syria in March.
Opening the borders, however, could benefit Iran as it tries to secure a land route to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Tehran enjoys wide influence through its allies in all three countries.
Omar Abu Laila, a Europe-based Syrian activist from the eastern province of Deir el-Zour that borders Iraq, told The Associated Press that the opening of the crossing will not chiefly benefit residents of the region, but Iran and the militias allied with it.
“The opening of the crossing will be a means for Iranians, Shiite militia and Hezbollah to boost their activities,” he said. “The opening of the crossing is an Iranian defiance to America and the international community.”
Some 800 freight trucks are expected to cross from Syria once the crossing has been opened, Syria’s state news agency said.
Qaim was once a thriving stopover on the highway linking Damascus and Baghdad. Long before a hard border materialized in the latter half of the 20th century, tribes sent their grooms and brides across the frontier to marry, extending the branches of their families on both sides.
The opening of the crossing was postponed several times in recent weeks. Earlier in September, Syria blamed Israel for a nighttime airstrike on an arms depot and posts of Iranian-backed militias in Boukamal that opposition activist said killed at least 18 fighters.
Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy, and as Syria’s civil war winds down, it has repeatedly warned that it will not allow Iranian troops — who have been fighting alongside Assad’s forces — to maintain a permanent presence in postwar Syria.
Syria and Iraq have three key border crossings between them, with Boukamal the only one controlled by the Assad’s government. The second one is controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, while the third crossing, the nearby Tanf, is held by U.S.-backed Syrian rebels.
Aji reported from Damascus, Syria. Associated Press reporters Hadi Mizban in Qaim, Iraq, and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.