Tehran has a controlled land access to Syria, Beirut and the Mediterranean coast.
In November 2017, the Syrian army and its allies took complete control over Al-Bukamal area, Deir Ezzor province, which was the last stronghold of the Islamic State (ISIS) after it was ousted from Raqqa. Iran-led Iraqi Shiite militias, such as Kata’ib Hizballah and Harakat al-Nujaba, had participated in the capturing of the Iraqi border town of al-Qa’im. Although pro-Syrian regime forces are controlling the center of Al-Bukamal, media reports confirm that ISIS still maintains a sizable presence around the border town. Because of its location, Al-Bukamal is strategically important for all parties involved in this regional conflict, due to the connection between Iraq to Syria, and finally to Beirut and the Mediterranean.
Since regaining control of the Al-Bukamal area, Syria and Iraq have been preparing for the reopening of the Al-Bukamal-al-Qa’im crossing. There was no official announcement of this border crossing reopening till recently. During recent months, conflicting reports have been published on this matter, but as can be seen in the following satellite imagery, the official border crossing is clearly still under construction, asphalt is being laid and the entrance to the complex is blocked.
Reopening the border crossing could create security breaches as terrorist groups like ISIS still exist in Al-Bukamal, located on the east bank of Euphrates River, which is eight kilometers away from the Iraqi-Syrian border. However, reopening the crossing could reinforce the security presence by both Iraqi (as seen within the following imagery) and Syrian troops, which could prevent infiltration of militants into Iraq.
On 18 June 2018 a structure in a village southeast of the city of Al-Bukamal was bombed, leaving casualties, state news agency SANA reported. That was the second “unknown” attack in this area at the same month.
Media reports said that pro-regime or other militia fighters were the target of the strikes, specifically Headquarters of Iraqi militia positions between Al-Bukamal and al-Tanf, as well as the Syrian military. In the following satellite imagery, the Iraqi Shiite militias headquarters is completely destroyed.
Iran and its allies have long focused on controlling two key border crossings between Iraq and Syria: al-Tanf, a border crossing in southeast Syria along the border with Jordan and Iraq; as well as Al-Bukamal-al Qa’im in the east. The presence and the involvement of the Iranians and the Shiites in this area are not hidden – on 30 June 2018 an Iranian intelligence delegation and the “Popular Mobilization Committee” visited the destroyed site.
In addition, satellite imagery shows linking vehicle trails, connecting the destroyed headquarters with other structures. ISI assess that it is probable that those are connected to the first, and therefore related to the Iran-led Iraqi Shiite militias.
Another important sign of activity in the area is seen in the following satellite imagery. ISI detected an active road which crosses the border between Iraq and Syria. ISI assesses that this access is utilized inter alia by the Iraqi Shiite militias, since November 2017, when as mentioned ahead the Syrian army and its allies took control over the area. In addition, it seems that this path is replacing the official border crossing, which is currently not operational.
According to these findings, ISI assess that the capture of Al-Bukamal by the pro-regime forces was therefore a strategic prize for Iran and its allies. For the first time, Tehran has a controlled land access to Syria, Beirut and the Mediterranean coast. Securing a land corridor through Al-Bukamal in the east helps Iran to maintain a supply chain to the embattled Assad regime in Syria and to Hizballah in Lebanon.
This new Iranian land bridge allows Iran to keep and enforce its presence in Syria. Therefore, Iran maintains its capability to transfer different elements, including personnel, weapon and equipment, to Syria and further to Lebanon.