Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji announced yesterday that the country is planning on opening the al-Qaim-Abu Kamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria.  Al-Araji, who is a senior member of Iran-backed Badr Organization, added that his ministry has obtained permission from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Chief of Staff of the Iraqi military, General Othman Al-Ghanimi, to reopen the strategic border crossing. He also revealed that Hashd al-Shaabi, Iraqi paramilitary forces also known as the Popular Mobilization Force, will play a role in maintaining security along the shared border. “Iraq’s border with Syria is 670 kilometers long and a complete military control of it can be achieved through closer positions. And in some areas the Army and in other regions the Hashd al-Shaabi forces will be called upon to assist.”

Syrian Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar visited Baghdad last Tuesday to discuss ways to bolster border security cooperation between the two countries as well as to resume trade through the Abu Kamal border crossing. 

Comment: Abu Kamal has been strategically important for all parties involved in the Syrian conflict. It was the last bastion of ISIS after the terrorist group was ousted from Raqqa. ISIS used the border crossing to smuggle fighters and weapons between Syria and Iraq.

In November, Iranian-led militia forces and the Syrian Army captured Abu Kamal, outmaneuvering the US-backed Kurdish forces that had set their sights on the strategic border region as well. What helped the pro-Damascus forces to reach Abu Kamal first and encircle the area was the entry of Iranian-backed Iraqi militiamen into Abu Kamal from the Iraqi side. Iran-linked Iraqi groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba had participated in the liberation of the Iraqi border town of al-Qa’im.

But although pro-Syrian regime forces are controlling the center of Abu Kamal, ISIS still maintains a sizable presence around the border town. In late January, the US military conducted a series of air strikes against ISIS remnants near Abu Kamal.

Iran and its allies had long focused on controlling two key border crossings between Iraq and Syria: al-Tanf, a border crossing in southeast Syria along the border with Jordan and Iraq where the US has been training Syrian rebel forces to fight the Islamic State; as well as Abu Kamal-al Qaim in the east.

The capture of Abu Kamal was therefore a strategic prize for Iran and its allies. “For the first time, Tehran will have land access to the Mediterranean coasts and Beirut, which is an unprecedented development in Iran’s several-thousand-year history,” Javan Online, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), wrote on November 15. Securing a land corridor through Abu Kamal in the east and through al-Waleed border crossing in the southeast helps Iran maintain a supply chain to the embattled Assad regime in Syria and to Hezbollah in Lebanon.