CAIRO - Syrian and Iraqi officials gathered Monday along the northern Albukamel border crossing to officially reopen it to traffic after being closed since 2014. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mehdi agreed to reopen the Iraqi side of the once-Islamic State-controlled border crossing last week.
Syrian government TV showed military commanders from both the Syrian and Iraqi armies cutting a rope and shaking hands, smiling broadly as the border crossing at Albukamel was officially reopened to traffic Monday.
The crossing between Albukamel and Al-Qaim, on the Iraqi side of the border, is one of three linking the two countries. U.S.-backed Kurdish forces control the northernmost crossing at al-Yaroubia, and other U.S.-backed Syrian forces control the southernmost crossing at Al-Tanf.
Syrian Interior Minister Gen. Mohammed Khaled al-Rahmoun sounded enthusiastic and upbeat as he presided over the reopening ceremony alongside the Iraqi director of border crossings, Dr. Kazem al-Aqaby.
The reopening, he insisted, will facilitate both trade and movement of people between the two countries.
Al-Rahmoun said that (Monday's) ceremony demonstrates the will of both the Syrian and Iraqi governments to reopen the border following months of preparation. He stressed that the reopening will improve both trade and transport between the two neighbors.
Al-Rahmoun added that he hopes a new border crossing south of Albukamel can be reopened in the near future and that the Syrian government will be able to reopen the other two crossings not currently under its control in the near future, as well.
Iraqi border director Al Aqaby insisted that Baghdad was making strides to increase trade between the two countries and that reopening the border is a key element in doing so.
Al Aqaby said that a new trade zone is being built on the Iraqi side of the border at Al-Qaim and should hopefully be ready in under a month. He says that despite the limited resources of both countries, it should help foster trade and movement of people from one side to the other.
The official reopening of the Albukamel border crossing has been postponed several times. Iraqi media claimed that Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mehdi came under pressure from several countries not to reopen it.
Abdel Mehdi told journalists recently that “Iraq has good relations with all its neighbors, including those that are fighting among themselves, like Iran and the U.S., Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and Syria,” and that Baghdad “hopes to be a focal point to restore peaceful relations between all sides.”
Theodore Karasik, Washington-based Middle East analyst, tells VOA that the reopening of the border crossing at Albukamel “is significant because this used to be Islamic State territory. Trade and movement of goods and services can now resume on this particular route,” he said. Karasik warns, however, that “there is deep concern about how Iran will use this border opening to maintain its logistic lines in the Levant.”
Arab media reported several times in recent weeks that unidentified drones bombed pro-Iranian Shi'ite militia bases near the Syrian-Iraqi border at Albukamel.
Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, tells VOA that the reopening of Albukamel “points to the fact that Bashar al-Assad is regaining control of more and more of Syria.” He says that he thinks the U.S. is 'holding onto (the main border crossing at) Al-Tanf in order to have a number of bargaining chips when final negotiations (to resolve the Syrian conflict) take place.”
Al-Tanf straddles the main highway between Damascus and Baghdad, which will ultimately link Tehran to Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea.