Syria, Iraq border reopening fuels fears of Iran ‘land corridor’
LONDON - A rare meeting took place in Damascus when the military chiefs of Syria, Iraq and Iran convened there. The meeting and an announcement that a border crossing between Iraq and Syria would be reopened are signs of Iran’s continued influence in the region.
Iranian Chief of Staff General Mohammad Bagheri said “terrorism poses a threat to all of us,” stressing the need to coordinate efforts to combat it.
Syrian President Bashar Assad met with the Iraqi and Iranian delegations and said on Iranian television that “Baghdad and Tehran have a common enemy, as well as a common battlefield.”
In a move that has been widely seen as a boost to Assad, Othman al-Ghanimi, the Iraqi chief of staff, announced that the al-Qa’im border crossing between Iraq and Syria would soon be reopened. The crossing, linking Iraq’s Anbar province with Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province, has been closed since 2013.
Bagheri hailed the announcement, which has stirred fears among Tehran’s critics of a “land corridor” between Iran and the Mediterranean, passing through Iraq and Syria.
Among Iran’s staunchest critics is the Trump administration, which sees the country as the most dangerous actor in the region. Washington has stepped up pressure against Tehran by exiting the Iran nuclear deal and increasing sanctions against the country.
The planned reopening comes after a flurry of Iranian diplomacy, which included President Hassan Rohani’s first visit to Iraq since taking office. Earlier in the year, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif travelled to Iraq with a large business delegation. In February, Syrian Assad made his first official trip to Tehran since the start of the war in Syria.
For Iran, the opening of the border provides various opportunities. Trade between Iran and Iraq, the biggest non-oil export market for Iran, is worth $12 billion each year. The Iranian government agreed to a range of deals with Iraq during Rohani’s visit, including in trade, oil, health and visa-free travel.
“The reopening of al-Qa’im border crossing is significant symbolically and politically. It exhibits Iran’s achievement in cementing a bridge between Iran and Syria via Iraq,” said Ali Alavi, a teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
Bagheri called the land connection “completely vital and necessary,” highlighting its importance for the transportation of goods and the travel of Iranian tourists to Iraq and Syria.
Reopening the border crossing between Iraq and Syria, said Nicholas A. Heras, Middle East Security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, “is a power play from Iran to show the international community that the consensus not to re-normalise Assad that the United States has worked hard to build, is not holding among the Arab nations in the Middle East.”
With the support of its allies, Damascus has worked towards re-establishing relations with regional countries after having been cut off for years. Last year, Jordan agreed to reopen the Jaber border crossing with Syria. In December, the United Arab Emirates announced the reopening of its embassy in Damascus.
For Baghdad, improving ties with Damascus presents a challenge as well as economic opportunities after the war reduced trade between Iraq and Syria. In 2010, Iraq was the largest single export destination for Syrian goods. Baghdad has been working to improve economic relations with its neighbours, striking a trade deal with Jordan in February.
A key question will be how the Iranian-US rivalry will affect Iraq. Washington has granted Baghdad another 90-day sanctions waiver to import electricity from Iran. However, the United States remains eager to roll back Iran’s influence in Iraq, which reaches from the political to the military, economic and religious realm. Iran-backed elements in the Popular Mobilisation Forces are some of the most heavily armed groups in Iraq.
The meeting among the military chiefs “shows, that despite the best efforts of the United States, Iraq remains the single most important asset for Iran in the Arab world,” Heras said.
He added that “Iran’s strong influence over Iraq allows the Iranians… to recruit and mobilise thousands of Iraqi fighters to participate in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ external activities and to use the Iraqi market to try to skirt around US sanctions.”
“Tehran aims to strengthen its economic connection with Iraq and Syria to mitigate the consequences of the imposed sanctions,” said Alavi.
Observers warned that Iraq, which suffers from high levels of corruption, could become a major hub for smuggling activity to evade US sanctions.
In a sign of Iraq’s delicate position as the Iranian-US rivalry intensifies, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi told visiting US lawmakers on March 19 that the country still needed US support to face the threat posed by the Islamic State. He conveyed the same message to US Vice-President Mike Pence in a phone call.