On September 30, Syria and Iraq reopened their main border crossing between al-Bukamal and al-Qaim, which had been formally closed for five years. The circumstances surrounding the event were telling—the ceremony was delayed by a couple weeks because of unclaimed foreign airstrikes on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps targets in east Syria following the Iranian attack against Saudi oil facilities earlier that month. What exactly have the IRGC and its local proxies been doing in Deir al-Zour province? And what does this activity tell us about Iran’s wider plans there?
The border ceremony was led by Khadhim al-Ikabi, an Iraqi government representative, raising questions about whether the decision will help circumvent U.S. sanctions placed on Iran. Although Syrian state media celebrated the event as an opportunity to increase trade with Iraq, Tehran’s reaction indicated that the crossing will mainly serve Iranian military interests.
According to officials and media in Iran, reopening the border is of “high strategic importance” in strengthening the Islamic Republic’s “trilateral coalition” with Baghdad and Damascus. As a recent article in Mehr News opined, the event may also be a “prelude” for Iran to confront the potentially shrinking U.S. military presence in northeast Syria by letting “al-Hashd al-Shabi and other groups fully enter Syrian territory and eradicate terrorism,” referring in part to Shia militias within Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces that often operate across the border.