QAIM, Iraq (AP) — Iraq and Syria on Monday opened a key border crossing between the two neighboring countries, seven years after it was closed during Syria’s civil war and the battle against the Islamic State group.
The opening of the crossing linking the Iraqi town of Qaim and Syria’s Boukamal is expected to strengthen trade between the two Arab countries.
But it is also a boost to Iran’s influence in the region, allowing Iran-backed militias in Iraq easier access to eastern Syria amid soaring tensions in the region between Tehran and Washington following the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
In a symbolic gesture, Syrian Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Mohammed Khaled Rahmoun, accompanied by Syrian troops, crossed onto the Iraqi side of the border, where troops from both countries hugged each other and took selfies.
Qaim and Boukamal were controlled by the Islamic State group until 2017, when Syrian and Iraqi troops captured the towns from the extremist. The group’s territorial defeat was announced in Syria earlier this year.
Iraqi authorities had set up tents for Monday’s ceremony amid tight security, with troops deployed around the crossing. Despite their official defeat, IS sleeper cells are still blamed for deadly attacks on both sides of the border.
“The opening of Boukamal-Qaim crossing is a victory for Syrian and Iraqi friendship against takfiri terrorism,” read a banner placed on the Syrian side of the border, a reference to the extremist ideology of the IS.
Some 800 freight trucks are expected to cross from Syria once the crossing has been opened, Syria’s state news agency said.
Qaim was once a thriving stopover on the highway linking Damascus and Baghdad. Long before a hard border materialized in the latter half of the 20th century, tribes sent their grooms and brides across the frontier to marry, extending the branches of their families on both sides.
The opening of the crossing was postponed several times in recent weeks. Earlier in September, Syria blamed Israel for a nighttime airstrike on an arms depot and posts of Iranian-backed militias in Boukamal that opposition activist said killed at least 18 fighters.
Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy, and as Syria’s civil war winds down, it has repeatedly warned that it will not allow Iranian troops — who have been fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces — to maintain a permanent presence in postwar Syria.
Syria and Iraq have three key border crossings between them, with Boukamal the only one controlled by the Assad’s government. The second one is controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, while the third crossing, the nearby Tanf, is held by U.S.-backed Syrian rebels.
Aji reported from Damascus, Syria. Associated Press reporter Hadi Mizban contributed to this report from Qaim, Iraq.
By ALI ABDUL-HASSAN and ALBERT AJI
Photo: Iraq and Syria border guards soldiers congratulate each other during the opening ceremony of the crossing between the Iraqi town of Qaim and Syria’s Boukamal in Anbar province, Iraq, Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. Iraq and Syria have opened a key border crossing between the two neighboring countries seven years after it was closed during Syria’s civil war. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)