Harith Hasan, a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center (CMEC) and Kheder Khaddour, a nonresident scholar at CMEC, have just published a paper titled “The Transformation of the Iraqi-Syrian Border: From a National to a Regional Frontier.” The paper was published with support from the X-Border Local Research Network, a component of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development’s X-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy, and Trends program. The X-Border Local Research Network—a partnership of the Carnegie Middle East Center, the Asia Foundation, and the Rift Valley Institute—carries out research to better understand the causes and impacts of conflict in border areas and their international dimensions. Diwan interviewed the authors in early April to discuss their paper.
Michael Young: You’ve just published a paper at Carnegie on the Iraqi-Syrian border in the area of Qa’im-Bukamal, titled “The Transformation of the Iraqi-Syrian Border: From a National to a Regional Frontier.” What is your main argument?
Harith Hasan and Kheder Khaddour: We present two main arguments: First, as a result of the weakening of the central state and the fragmentation of power in both Iraq and Syria, the border area has attracted a number of state, nonstate, and parastate actors. This has created a hybrid configuration of authority characterized by fluidity, changing alliances, contestation, and the overlap of subnational, national, and transnational agendas.
Second, rather than being a border separating two sovereign states, this border zone has become a regional frontier where the authorities in Baghdad and Damascus are restricted by the intense presence of Iranian-backed militias and the transformation of the Qa’im-Bukamal area into a strategic conduit for pro-Iran paramilitary groups. The presence of U.S. forces and their local allies in other areas near the border, like the frequent targeting of the bases of Iranian-backed militias in Qa’im and Bukamal by U.S. and Israeli airstrikes, has turned the border zone into a front line in a regional conflict.
MY: What have been the main characteristics of the border in the past, particularly since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003?
HH and KK: Prior to the U.S. invasion, the rivalry between the two ruling branches of the Ba‘th party in Iraq and Syria resulted in the severing of diplomatic and commercial relations and the closing of border crossings. Apart from limited illicit trade run by local smugglers, there was a general stagnation in the border area as both Qa’im and Bukamal became more connected with the centers in Baghdad and Damascus, respectively, than they were with each other. This started to change when the two countries resumed commercial relations and opened the border to the movement of goods and people in the late 1990s. It also changed with the revival of smuggling routes in the 1990s, benefiting from the relative weakness of the Iraqi government after the Gulf war of 1991 and the decline in the value of the Iraqi currency due to international sanctions.
After the U.S. invasion in 2003, there was a collapse of order on the Iraqi side of border, which provided insurgents and jihadi groups with an opportunity to build a strong presence in the border zone as they took advantage of old and new smuggling networks. The area became an essential passage for jihadis and foreign fighters who moved into Iraq from Syria, often with the help of Syrian government operatives. Qa’im became a key stronghold for Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq, led by Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, who spent some time there. This remained the case until 2005 when an alliance was formed between the U.S. military and the largest tribe in Qa’im, the Bou Mahal, which eventually managed to push the jihadis out.
However, the Syrian uprising in 2011 created new opportunities for jihadis, this time entering Syria from Iraq. The area became a vital zone of activity for the Islamic State group. In 2014, when the Islamic State—then still known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—declared the foundations of its caliphate across the Iraqi-Syrian border, Qa’im-Bukamal was the only area where it tried to integrate Iraqi and Syrian towns into one administrative entity. The aim was to legitimize its claim of having put an end to the alleged consequences of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 (though it was based on an inaccurate interpretation of that agreement). The Islamic State named the new entity Wilayat al-Furat, or the Euphrates Region, allowing the unrestricted movement of people between the two towns, which are located around 7 kilometers from each other.
MY: In recent months we’ve seen an uptick in military actions in the border area by U.S. and Israeli aircraft. Why has this happened and is the border a new regional front line?
HH and KK: Indeed. The recent confrontations have had very little to do with the key interests and priorities of the Iraqi and Syrian states. There is a heavy deployment of militias on both sides of the border area, including militias that are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). In theory, the PMF is affiliated with the Iraqi state, but in practice it is largely autonomous. Therefore, the Qa’im-Bukamal area has become the main conduit for the activities of the transnational network of paramilitaries backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Tehran has sought to use the border to maintain a connection across four countries—Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—in order to protect its regional influence. This is why the United States and Israel have frequently targeted the bases of IRGC-backed paramilitaries in the area, to prevent Iran from securing this route and using it to counter U.S. influence in Iraq, promote its operations in Syria, especially near the Syrian-Israeli border, and retain its ability to support Hezbollah in Lebanon.
MY: Who is actually present in the Qa’im-Albukamal sector of the border, and how solid is their control?
HH and KK: On the Iraqi side of the border, an array of state, nonstate, and parastate military units share territorial control. These include the Iraqi army’s 7th and 8th Divisions, border guard units, a counterterrorism force, various militias operating under the auspices of the PMF, and Sunni local tribal forces such as the Hamza Brigade, which is the military arm of the Bou Mahal tribe, and the Upper Euphrates Brigade, made up of men from Karbuli tribe.
When we were writing the paper, the main PMF militias deployed in the zone were Liwa’ al-Tuffuf (PMF Brigade 13), Kataeb Hezbollah (PMF Brigade 45), which controls the road between Qa’im and ‘Akashat to its southwest; Kataeb al-Imam ‘Ali (PMF Brigade 40); Saraya al-Khorasani (PMF Brigade 18); Liwa’ al-Muntazir (PMF Brigade 7); and Kataeb Ansar al-Hujja (PMF Brigade 29). Based on interviews with local residents, the Tuffuf brigade, affiliated with the Shi‘a shrines in Karbala but which also has strong connections with Iran, and Kataeb Hezbollah, one of the most pro-Iranian and well-trained groups that secured a very influential position within the PMF’s core leadership, are the most active in Qa’im.
Inside Syria, in and around Bukamal, the Euphrates River divides the area into two regions. The western side is known as the Shamiyya, which the regime holds alongside Iranian-backed militias; and the eastern side is known as the Jazira, and is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of militias led by the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia with ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party. However, IRGC-backed militias also maintain a heavy presence in the city. On the Shamiyya side, the 17th Division, the Republican Guard, and some Russian forces control the boundary between the Assad regime and the SDF along the Euphrates. The Russians also run a center focused on fostering reconciliation, the Markaz al-Musalaha, in Bukamal.
Some neighborhoods have become centers for Iranian-backed militias. These include Kataeb Hezbollah, Harakat al-Abdal, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba’, the Zeinabiyyoun, the Fatimiyyoun, Kataeb al-Imam ‘Ali, and ‘Asaib Ahl al-Haq. In May 2019, the Fatimiyyoun militia, composed mainly of Afghan Shi‘a fighters, took over a building in the Dowar section of Bukamal because it gave them a good view of the surrounding roads. They installed cameras and converted the building into an operations center.
On the Jazira side, by contrast, the SDF has maintained control in cooperation with the Sha‘itat clan, a less complex mix than the multinational forces on the Syrian regime-controlled side. This combination of armed units throughout the border region likely will ensure that tensions remain high for years to come.
MY: Has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the border in any way?
HH and KK: It’s too early to make an assessment. Inasmuch as it affects the Qa’im-Bukamal border zone, the pandemic is likely to slow the ambitious plans of some actors who put pressure to officially reopen the Qa’im-Bukamal crossing, which took place on October 1, 2019. That was the same day when the latest wave of Iraqi protests started, feeding into the conspiracy theories of some Iranian-allied groups that the protests were driven by the United States and Israel, whose aim was to weaken ties between members of the resistance axis—Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and pro-Iranian Iraqi Shi‘a militias—which the border opening was supposed to strengthen.
Qa’im-Bukamal is now the only crossing on the Iraqi-Syrian border that is officially opened and managed by the Iraqi and Syrian governments. The two other official border crossings—Tanf-Walid and Rabi‘a-Ya‘rubiyya—remain closed, as U.S. forces have blocked the Syrian government’s access to the former, and the SDF has impeded its access to the latter.
The Syrian government lobbied to accelerate the opening of the border. It did so to reassert its authority over part of the border and because it aspired to reactivate industrial facilities in Aleppo and benefit from the Iraqi market as a destination for Syrian products while also importing cheap oil products from Iraq. The Lebanese government and Hezbollah also encouraged the reopening of this crossing as a way of facilitating the export of Lebanese products to the Iraqi market.
The crossing would also serve as the main land crossing for Shi‘a pilgrims from Iran and Iraq to Syria. The reopening can be seen as another step toward the normalization of the new power configurations in this border area, with the aim of strengthening ties between Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut. Some local residents also think it would benefit transportation and commercial companies connected to the IRGC-led axis of groups and paramilitaries operating in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Now, some of these plans have had to be postponed as all borders are either closed or subjected to extraordinary restrictions for the purpose of preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
This interview was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.