BEIRUT – After prematurely declaring a victory over the so-called Islamic State on Thursday, the Syrian army and its allies are trying to regain control over one of the militant group’s areas in Deir Ezzor province. If successful, this would give the Syrian government access to a border crossing with Iraq for the first time in five years and a political and economic boost, according to Fabrice Balanche, Visiting Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
The Syrian army on Thursday said that it captured the ISIS-held town of Boukamal in Deir Ezzor province, near the Iraqi border, but militants took back nearly half the town after they launched a counterattack on Friday. Syrian troops and allied militias, including Iraqi Shiite groups and the Lebanese Hezbollah, are now attempting to wrest control of the militants’ last stronghold in the country.
Capturing Boukamal and gaining access to the border crossing will facilitate the flow of fighters and weapons between Syria and Iraq, while also helping Iran secure a land bridge to the Mediterranean, according to Balanche. Control over a section of the border with Iraq is also likely to boost Syria’s economy by allowing trade and exports to resume, he added.
In a broader scope, Balanche said the capture of Boukamal would serve as “proof of U.S. failure,” in eastern Syria and of increased Iranian influence in the country.
Syria Deeply spoke to Balanche, who has written extensively on developments in east Syria, about the implications of the Syrian government’s latest advance, including its impact on the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, Washington’s interests in Syria and, ultimately, the survivability of President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria Deeply: What would the capture of Boukamal mean for the government in Deir Ezzor?
Fabrice Balanche: The Syrian government in recent weeks has taken Deir Ezzor city and Mayadeen. The capture of Boukamal, would mean that the three most important cities in Deir Ezzor province would be under government control. It will also be easy for Assad to take the countryside, so we should expect areas on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River (controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces) to fall under government control soon. However, northern parts of Deir Ezzor province will remain under SDF control until an agreement is brokered with Damascus.
Syria Deeply: The capture of Boukamal would give the Syrian government access to a border crossing into Iraq for the first time since 2012. What is the importance of this for Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran?
Balanche: The capture of Boukamal means that the Syrian government and allied Shiite militias would be slated to control a large part of the Syrian-Iraqi border. This means that there will be a facilitated flow of fighters and weapons between the two countries.
Also, Iran could more easily secure a landbridge connecting its territory to both Syria and Iraq. This will allow Iran to dispatch weapons and fighters to both countries wherever it wants. This is a significant development because Iran has mostly relied on aviation to fly in weapons and fighters to Syria so far. But Iranian aviation is weak, and planes can be easily targeted. So this landbridge will be very important for the deployment of Shiite militias and Iranian troops between Syria and Iraq.
For the Syrian government, access to a big part of the border with Iraq is also of economic significance. Before the conflict, Iraq was among the top markets for Syrian exports. A lot of manufactured goods and agricultural produce used to go into Iraq from Syria. So this would be good news for Syrian businessmen and the Syrian economy.
Also, access to a border crossing with Iraq means that it would be possible to export Iraqi gas and oil to the Mediterranean through Syria. This will generate a significant amount of royalties for Syria from the transit of gas and oil. This economic factor is crucial for reconstruction and the survivability of the Assad regime.
Syria Deeply: Iranian-backed Iraqi militias crossed the border on Wednesday to help the Syrian army encircle Boukamal. Is this the first time Iraqi militias cross the border into Syria and is it a sign that more forces will deploy in the future?
Balanche: I think this is the first time that Iraqi militias have crossed the border to enter Syria. Although there are thousands of Iranian-backed Iraqi forces already fighting in Syria, most of them have been flown in from Iraq and Iran. They did not deploy across the border.
Also, Wednesday’s deployment signals to what I talked about before: We will see more deployment of Iraqi and other Iranian-backed Shiite militias. It is much easier for Iraqi forces just across the border in al-Qaim to cross the frontier and enter Syria now. We can expect more forces to come soon. Especially since these Iraqi militias will help the Syrian government put pressure on the Syrian Democratic Forces to give up territory they captured in Deir Ezzor, Raqqa and other traditionally Arab territories.
Syria Deeply: Do you think that the Syrian government and the SDF will head toward a confrontation as ISIS retreats from eastern Syria?
Balanche: It is a possibility. However, I think after ISIS withdraws the Syrian government will try a softer approach first. The Syrian government will try to broker a deal with the SDF for them to relinquish territory in Raqqa and eastern Syria. They will also ask the SDF to withdraw from the al-Omar oil fields in Deir Ezzor, Syria’s largest.
If the Kurds don’t accept the agreement, the government and Shiite militias will exert pressure on the SDF, by threatening to dispatch forces across the border into Kurdish-held regions such as Shadadi and east of the Euphrates River as well as areas around the al-Omar oil fields. We have already seen this happen in the Iraqi town of Sinjar last month. Kurds were driven out of the Kurdish-held area by Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militias who have now moved into the region.
Beyond a direct military confrontation, the Syrian regime can also strain the economy of Kurdish cantons in northern Syria by imposing a blockade. The government controls roads connecting the Kurdish canton of Afrin to Manbij and Aleppo. By cutting these roads, Damascus can prevent the delivery of food and medical supplies and obstruct trade. Also, the Turkish border is closed, and Iraqi forces control the Feshkhabour border crossing which is the only option for humanitarian organizations to bring supplies and specialists into northeast Syria. It is possible for Damascus to coordinate with Ankara and Baghdad to enforce a siege on Kurdish territories.
Syria Deeply: What does the capture of Boukamal mean for the U.S.?
Balanche: The U.S. originally wanted to enter and eventually retake eastern Syria. Between March and April 2017 it tried to send allied rebels it had trained in its base in the southern Syrian town of al-Tanf to Boukamal, but Iranian-backed forces blocked their advance.
If the government takes Boukamal, they will show that they can control this area and can push back U.S. proxies. In other words, the capture of Boukamal would mark the failure of U.S. plans to retake eastern Syria and parts of the Iraqi border.