The Syrian-Iraqi border is one of the most dangerous regions in the Middle East due to the multiplicity of players in this region, their different interests and goals, and the inability to control it. Over many years, this border has turned into one of the regional danger centres, given that unruly forces, militias and terrorist organisations are spread on both sides, in addition to the presence of armies belonging to major foreign powers, both global and regional, without the existence of mechanisms to ensure the non-collision between those forces. Some parties also take advantage of the state of chaos in this region to carry out illegal activities such as smuggling and drug trafficking.
Years of organised chaos
The US occupation of Iraq in 2003 marked the beginning of the transformation of the Syrian-Iraqi border into one of the most dynamic and lively regions in the Middle East after it had been a semi-dead region for decades, after the Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq closed it as a result of the severance of relations between the two countries since the beginning of the 1960s, the date the Baath Party assumed power in both countries.
In the last years of the rule of Saddam Hussein's regime, and due to the siege imposed on Iraq, smuggling and trade were active on the border between the two countries, especially oil from Iraq and food and consumer goods from Syria. Control was taken over by the political and economic centres of power in the two countries, which achieved huge profits at that time.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, and as a result of the fears of the regimes in Iran and Syria about the US presence in their vicinity, the Syrian-Iraqi border became a transit gate for thousands of jihadists from all over the world to fight the Americans. This process was directly managed by the Iranian and Syrian intelligence services, with the aim of exhausting the US forces in Iraq and pushing them to abandon their ambitions to expand to Syria and Iran.
In both stages, i.e. the stage of trade and smuggling and the stage of organising the transit of jihadists, complex networks and interests have formed in the border areas, run by the security services, and some have operated outside the control of the agencies, relying on the kinship relations that bind the residents of the border areas on both sides.
The border between Iraq and Syria extends for more than 600 km, and is linked to a deep desert that extends from Hasaka in the east to the eastern countryside of Homs, corresponding on the Iraqi side to Mosul and Anbar. The area of this region accounts for a third of the area of Syria, and a quarter of the area of Iraq.
Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL) had estatblished on a large area of this region what it called the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (or Syria)”, establishing therein networks, roads and tunnels for smuggling weapons and drug trafficking in various villages in the region. The complex terrain of the region helped to protect Daesh remnants after the campaign launched by the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh which, according to international estimates, still maintains more than 10 thousand operatives and many weapons and equipment.
Borders as an international conflict front
The Syrian-Iraqi border has turned into a complex front for a regional-international conflict, as the border areas fall within the struggle of geopolitical projects in the region. The border areas house forces affiliated with the armies of Iran, the US and Russia, in addition to the Syrian and Iraqi armies, and paramilitary forces, such as the militias affiliated with Iran and the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD, SDF) of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration.
While the border between Hasaka, Mosul and Dohuk falls under the control of the QSD forces, with its Fishkhabour and Al-Yaaruabiyah crossings, which are calm and stable areas, the dangerous part of the border is located between the Albu Kamal and Al-Tanf crossings, in an area estimated at nearly 200 km. Daesh is intensively active in that region, and armies and militias converge on overlapping lines of contact that consistently warn of clashes between the different forces.
Israel has got involved in the conflict on the Syrian-Iraqi border by trying to prevent Iranian forces from settling in that area, after Iran has turned it into areas for storing weapons and ammunition, which would subsequently be transferred to Damascus and Beirut, as well as a corridor for its militias to the Syrian territories.
Recently, the Russian forces entered the fray of the conflict on the Syrian-Iraqi border, five years after the date of their intervention in Syria, which is an indication of the increasing intensity of competition between the players in this region. Meanwhile, the US is massing several dozen of its soldiers at the Tanf base, in addition to the Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra (MaT, Revolutionary Commando Army), one of the Syrian armed opposition factions. The base also houses advanced military equipment.
Demographic change and drug trade
After its militias took control of a part of the Iraqi-Syrian border region, Iran sought to bring about a demographic change there, given the importance of this region as a bridge to Syria and Lebanon, and for its fear of the residents of those areas (Al-Qaim and Albu Kamal) who are hostile to the militias loyal to Iran. Iran has deliberately intimidated those remaining of the population or prevented the return of those who left the region during the control of Daesh. It also forcefully sought to infiltrate local communities in the border areas by providing food aid, repairing schools, teaching the Persian language, and recruiting young people into Iranian militias.
However, the Iranian project in this region faces many difficulties as a result of the existence of undeclared resistance on the part of the population there, in addition to the frequent Israeli-US strikes that prevent Iran from building stable bases. Perhaps that is what pushed Iran to pursue other ways to invest in those areas, such as drug trafficking, given that Iraqi officials in the border guards confirmed that drug smuggling on the border is supported by quarters that are parties to the equation of the armed forces on the Syrian and Iraqi sides. The regions of eastern Syria, which are controlled by various armed parties, have likely become a producer and manufacturer of drugs.
The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) supervises the smuggling of narcotic pills coming from Lebanon via the Syrian territories to introduce them into the Qaim region in Iraq and onwards to other Iraqi cities, mostly in Anbar Governorate, such as the districts of Haditha, Fallujah, and Ramadi, the governorate's centre. To facilitate this process and ensure its implementation, Iran has deployed militias very close to it in the border areas, such as the Iraqi Hezbollah Battalions, the Tafuf Brigade and Saraya al-Khorasani (Khorasani Companies).
On the other hand, Daesh is active in running daily smuggling operations on the border. Its revenues are estimated at more than 50 thousand dollars per day, being collected from smuggling commodities, people, oil, weapons and other goods.
There are many actors along the Syrian-Iraqi border line, with divergent and strongly conflicting interests. The region lies at the heart of the geopolitical projects of the parties involved in the competition for control of the border areas, with the Syrian and Iraqi depths behind them.
The conflict in that region disrupts the ability of the Syrian-Iraqi authorities to reconfigure the structures of control and discipline there, making it likely that chaos and confusion will continue for a long time in the future, with the likelihood that the border areas will become epicentres of concentration of extremist and unruly forces, which are fed by the spread of corruption on both sides of the border so that the impact of their risks would exceed that area to other areas in the region.
Hamdi Bashir | 18 Feb 2021
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