Al Bukamal: The hub of Iran’s 'land bridge'

“According to security experts, this is the first time the Iranian military is building a base of this scale from scratch in Syria," the report read.

By
September 4, 2019 21:55
4 minute read.
Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade to commemorate the 1980-88 Ira

Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade to commemorate the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in Tehran. (photo credit: MORTEZA NIKOUBAZI/ REUTERS)

Iran is constructing a new military compound and weapon storehouses, according to Fox News report based on analysis from ImageSat International.

“According to security experts, this is the first time that the Iranian military is building a base of this scale from scratch in Syria,” the report read.

It is all taking place near al-Bukamal, a border town that is adjacent to the Iraqi town of al-Qa’im. This area has now taken on particular significance as a hub of Iranian activity linking Iraq and Syria and playing a key role in Tehran’s regional ambitions.

It wasn’t always that way.

In June 2014, a branch of al-Qaeda that was active in al-Bukamal pledged allegiance to Islamic State and paved the way for the group to exert control over the key border crossing. This area had been abandoned by the increasingly weak Syrian and Iraqi armies on the other side, which were facing off against ISIS and other groups. It was a vacuum. After two years, in June 2016, the US and its Syrian rebel allies set their sights on liberating al-Bukamal from ISIS.

In a now largely forgotten battle, the New Syrian Army launched an offensive against the area. Sam Heller wrote at the time, “after initially training in Jordan, the NSA captured the southern desert outpost of al-Tank from the Islamic State in March [2016] and established its base there.”

It received backing from the US, and with just 150 men, attacked al-Bukamal on June 28, 2016. The New Syrian Army was badly defeated, scuppering US plans for a Syrian rebel success story that might liberate areas in Deir ez-Zor from ISIS. The rest is largely history. The US shifted more support to the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the Syrian regime ended up liberating al-Bukamal from ISIS in November 2017.

This is the situation al-Bukamal finds itself today.

Controlled by the Syrian regime, it sits on one side of the Euphrates, while the US-backed SDF are on the other side, north of the Syrian army positions. South of al-Bukamal is the lonely desert outpost of al-Tanf, where US forces are still stationed. So al-Bukamal is part of a kind of strategic corridor from Iraq to Syria for groups that support the Syrian regime, and especially for groups that are aligned with Iran and Hezbollah.

The battle for al-Bukamal in 2017 united elements of the Syrian army with Iraqi-based Shi’ite paramilitary groups. Kata’ib Hezbollah, a member of the Popular Mobilization Forces, entered Syria from Iraq to help retake al-Bukamal. Then it decided to stay in Syria. This group is run by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi who served alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the 1980s when Iran was fighting Saddam. He was accused of terrorist offenses in Kuwait, but has become a key player in post-ISIS Iraq. His group is one of many influential paramilitary groups that are now both official government forces and sectarian political parties.

In June 2018, a mysterious airstrike eviscerated a Kata’ib Hezbollah base near al-Bukamal in Syria. Kata’ib Hezbollah members initially blamed the US, but the US said it had not carried out the attack. A report at Al-Jarida claimed Israel had carried out the strike. A July report from ImageSat International noted the “presence and the involvement of the Iranians and the Shi’ites in this area are not hidden... on June 30, 2018 an Iranian intelligence delegation and the ‘Popular Mobilization Committee’ visited the destroyed site.”

Maps, satellite images and photos accompanied the report, showing the destruction caused by the airstrike.

In May 2019, Fox News reported on more exclusive images from ImageSat International that showed a “new border crossing controlled by Iran” at al-Bukamal. ISI assessed in August that airstrikes in Iraq and at al-Bukamal were “aimed to destroy the Iranian land bridge from Tehran to Syria and Hezbollah.”

This is the context of the September 3 report about Iran’s new base at al-Bukamal. The report comes in the context of three linked crises related to Iran and its allies in the region. First, up to five mysterious airstrikes in Iraq between July 19 and August 25 that ranged from Amerli, near the Iranian border, to southern Baghdad and near al-Qa’im. Second, the August 24 airstrike by Israel on a Hezbollah and IRGC “killer drone” team in southern Syria. Third, Hezbollah’s claim that two Israeli drones crashed in Beirut on August 25 and the subsequent information published by Israel detailing Hezbollah’s precision missile program, which is backed by the IRGC.

The al-Bukamal hub of Iran’s land-bridge influence includes possible housing for precision-guided missiles, according to ImageSat International analysts. The airstrike on a convoy near al-Qa’im on August 25 killed a member of the PMU’s 45th Brigade. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the same Muhandis who runs Kata’ib Hezbollah, paid a condolence call to the family of the man killed on September 2.

The only question about al-Bukamal today is when the border crossing will become active, as work has been done on both sides to make it an official crossing. However, the larger picture of bases being built, militias crossing back and forth and a highway of pro-Iranian power using the area as a junction illustrates Tehran’s larger ambitions in the region.

The only issue is that al-Bukamal is bracketed by US forces in Tanf and across the Euphrates. When US President Donald Trump said in December 2018 that the US would use Iraq to “watch” Iran, there was alarm in Baghdad. Iraq doesn’t want the ISIS war to end with a new conflict between the US and Iran in Iraq considering that a simmering conflict between Iran and its adversaries is already taking place in Syria. Al-Bukamal is now very much a key to that simmering conflict.


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