Taym al-Haj /Abdullah al-Khatib/ Murad Abdul Jalil/ Habaa Shehadeh
Halfway between the Iranian Caspian Beach and Head of the Grotto coast on the Mediterranean in Lebanon, the Syrian city of al-Bukamal is located on a corner from which Iran overlooks its strategic interests and aims to imply it in the Middle East.
The city, which was the most prominent ISIS-controlled area in Syria, has become, since 2017, a point of attraction for the Iranian factions and Iranian-backed militias operating in the region, and among its residents, some of whom have returned following the waves of displacement due to the military operations taking place in the region.
In this file, Enab Baladi sheds light on the most prominent features of the Iranian military presence in the city of al-Bukamal, through the militias operating in the area and its military bases, while attempting to explain Iranian economic goals behind controlling the city, and the soft tools the Iranian authorities are using to implement their plan.
Iran’s gateway to the Mediterranean… How to exploit al-Bukamal militarily
With the Syrian regime forces controlling al-Bukamal, with extensive ground support by Iranian militias, the latter increased its spread in the area, as Tehran’s awareness of the region’s strategic geography enables it to enhance its influence in Syria and threaten the security of Israel, through the missiles it possesses.
Groups of Iranian fighters, whose numbers were not specified yet can be noticed by their activities in the area, and the repeated Israeli attacks against Iranian military sites in the city, are stationed in al-Bukamal, which connects Syrian lands to Iraq through al-Bukamal-al-Qaim border crossing.
A military reservoir for Iran
Before the regime took control of the area, the city of al-Bukamal was considered as ISIS’s last major stronghold. In later stages, the terrorist organization’s presence receded to the small towns and villages in eastern Syria, and its countryside, until the US announced in March 2019 that ISIS was entirely eliminated.
Military analysts believe that, during that period, Iran transformed the city of al-Bukamal into a “missile depot” to threaten Israel, after testing it during the battles against ISIS.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Colonel Fayez al-Asmar stressed that it is possible that Iran has deployed long-range missiles in al-Bukamal in order to impose a kind of threat to Israel if necessary.
These missiles were previously used by Iran to hit the ISIS-controlled areas in Deir Ez-Zzor, in response to the attack that targeted an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) military parade in the city of Ahwaz in early 2018, following which 25 Iranian soldiers were killed at the time.
Since the attack, Iran attempted to demonstrate its military capabilities, using two types of missiles, which are Zulfikar, which has a range of 750 km, and a Qiam with a range of 800 km.
Military analyst Colonel Hatim al-Rawi indicated that the presence of these weapons is the cause of US-Israeli strikes targeting al-Bukamal over the past two years. He noted in an interview with Enab Baladi that Iran is currently building military bases in there, including the Imam Ali base, which will be a focal point of force for Iran in al-Bukamal.
A-Rawi added that the base was built in the form of fortified tunnels, used by Iran to store weapons, in addition to other Iranian military bases in al-Bukamal, which are rather exposed and distributed in al-Hamdan airport, the village of Heri, and in the industrial zone.
Several media outlets have been talking about building many tunnels between the Syrian-Iraqi borders so that Iranian militias can protect what is being transported between the two countries, from the Israeli strikes. However, Colonel al-Asmar does not agree with those reports.
According to al-Asmar, the region is “monitored by the US and even Israeli army around the clock,” and “any engineering operations in the area will be exposed, in addition to the fact that the US can destroy any tunnels built in al-Bukamal using advanced concussion grenades.”
Turning a blind eye
According to the above data, al-Bukamal plays an important role in the rivalry between Iran and Israel. In Tehran’s view, controlling the city means having the ability to transfer militias and ammunition to Syria and Lebanon, in the event of a wider conflict with Israel, and the latter, in turn, seeks to prevent this from happening by targeting Iranian stations in the area frequently.
This equation may raise questions about “the US leniency” during the battles to exterminate ISIS at the end of 2017, when Iranian militias expanded east of Deir Ez-Zor and took control of al-Bukamal.
In this context, Colonel al-Rawi explained that the US has allowed Iran to be present in al-Bukamal to preserve the balance in the Syrian file, as this balance does not allow any party to win the battle and thus prolong it, in reference to the clashes taking place between the opposition factions and the Syrian regime forces supported by Iran and Russia.
Al-Rawi pointed out that the US has turned a blind eye to Iran in al-Bukamal within specific limits, as the US troops keep targeting the Iranian locations whenever the latter exceeds what is permitted, while al-Asmar believed that the US and Israel do not want to eliminate the Iranian presence in the whole region, but they only want to limit its role.
Landbridge to a seaport… Al-Bukamal: Secret code for Iran’s economic plans
Military analysts, al-Asmar and al-Rawi agree that the importance of al-Bukamal to the Iranians is that it is an important land transportation hub, i.e. an extension of the Iraqi Anbar desert, as it is linked to the As-Suwayda, Daraa, Palmyra, and Deir Ez-Zor desert.
This city’s economic importance is derived from its location on the supply line separating Iraq and Syria, which makes it the only outlet for Iran, especially in light of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) dominance of the al–Yaarubiyah crossing, and the US’s control of the al-Tanf crossing in the Badia of Deir Ez-Zor.
During the past years, Iran has not hidden its desire to reopen the border crossings between Syria and Iraq, as it is the only outlet from Tehran to Damascus and Lebanon, with the aim of facilitating the transfer of goods and military supplies to Iran’s allies.
The chief of staff of the Iranian army, Mohammad Bagheri, confirmed from Damascus in March 2019 that “opening the border crossings between Syria and Iraq is important for Iran, in terms of commercial exchanges and the transportation of Iranian tourists from Iran to Iraq and Syria.”
Syria and Iraq are linked via three crossings; the first is al-Waleed crossing on the Iraqi side, matched on the other side by the al-Tanf crossing, which is controlled by the Free Syrian Army’s factions, supported by the US-led international coalition. The second crossing is al–Yaarubiyah on the Iraqi side, matched on the Syrian side by the Rabia crossing, which is controlled by the US-backed SDF.
The third crossing, which has been inaugurated by the Syrian regime and the Iraqi government in September 2019, is located in the city of al-Bukamal, opposite to the city of al-Qaim, on the Iraqi side.
Those who are informed about the course of the battle to restore the Syrian-Iraqi border from the grip of ISIS, can observe the military weight invested in this battle, either by the Iraqi side, which announced on October 3, 2017 controlling al-Qaim city, or the Syrian regime forces, backed by Iranian militias, which declared seizing the city of al-Bukamal only a week later.
Al-Bukamal is of great importance, as it serves as a land bridge for Iran; i.e. the city includes the only land crossing linking the three countries (Iran – Iraq – Syria), through which Iran can cross to the shores of the Mediterranean, which enables the Iranian authorities to achieve several economic benefits. Through cementing its presence in al-Bukamal, Iran will manage to strengthen the economic agreements signed with the Syrian regime during the past years in several fields, and thus, will raise the value of trade exchange between the two countries.
Head of the Iranian-Syrian Joint Chamber of Commerce Kiwan Kashifi, confirmed in October 2019 that Iran is seeking to attain trade exchange rates, between the two countries, ranging between 500 million and one billion dollars during the next two years, saying that “the launch of land transportation lines between Syria and Iran will facilitate access to the Syrian market and other countries in the region.
The Syrian Embassy Chargé d’Affaires in Iran, Ali Sayyid Ahmed, indicated in March 2019 that the volume of trade between Iran and Syria amounts to about $200 million, considering that rate as bellow both countries’ ambition. Thus, the Iranian Trade Development Organization announced, in the same month, the inclusion of 88 categories of commodities on the list of trade exchange between Iran and the government of the Syrian regime.
To the sea
Iran aims to transform al-Bukamal into a route to reach the seaport, which the Iranian authorities are seeking to establish on the Syrian coast, following an agreement with the government of the Syrian regime in 2017, to allocate 5000 hectares to establish an oil port.
The pro-government newspaper Al-Baath reported, in September 2019, that meetings were held between the Iranian Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters and the Ministry of Transport in the regime’s government, to discuss the establishing a port in the far south of Tartus governorate, near the Lebanese border in al-Hamidiyah area. Thus, if the port is established, it will be easier for Iran to export its gas to Europe via Iraq and Syria, which will save it time and cost.
The land crossing is considered the “biggest prize”, as described by the Associated Press, as it guarantees Iran a supply route to transport Iranian weapons to its ally in Lebanon (Hezbollah), and facilitate the movement of the militias it is supporting, in addition to being an alternative trade route to the Gulf waters.
The Wall Street Journal considered in March 2019 that the opening of the al-Bukamal crossing between Iraq and Syria would be an opportunity for Iran to reduce the economic damage it suffered as a result of the US sanctions.
Iranian control affects service sectors negatively
Since the end of 2017, Iran has sought to send positive messages to the population of al-Bukamal. The Iranian authorities wanted to go back to the city in order to achieve two goals: the first is to break the stereotype about the difficulty of coexisting with the Iranian presence in Syria, and the second goal, which was unannounced, is to secure a demographic density that may prevent military strikes on the locations of Iran’s militia in the area.
Enab Baladi contacted three local sources, whose identities will not be disclosed for security considerations, to find out the services and demographic reality in the city of al-Bukamal.
According to the sources, only small proportions of al-Bukamal population have returned, despite Iranian efforts, for reasons ranging from security concerns to poor services. Thus, the number of civilians currently based in Al-Bukamal cannot be specified due to the presence of a large number of militias and their families, and the ineffectiveness of the Syrian regime’s institutions, as Iran monopolized the decision-making process in the region and crippled the regime’s influence by placing its militia headquarters in most institutions.
The sources confirmed that a large percentage of the families, who returned to al-Bukamal have children who volunteered among the Iranian militias, in exchange for material benefit and monthly salaries.
At the service level, al-Bukamal lacks the majority of services, such as electricity, which is activated one hour per day. Thus, the area’s inhabitants depend mainly on their own electricity generators.
In August 2019, Iran promoted that several organizations have been funded to work on fixing high tension towers. At the time, local media circulated pictures showing electricity workshops working near the city of al-Bukamal. However, one of the sources in the city told Enab Baladi that these workshops were not efficient and served only as “a worthless publicity.”
As for the water, the city is not provided with a sufficient share due to the major breakdowns in the water networks, resulting from the damage caused by the battles against ISIS. Therefore, the area relies on pumps and water tanks.
The city also suffers from a significant decline in the medical sector, which forces people to travel to Damascus and Deir ez-Zor for treatment. Thus, the Iranian militias have designated the National Hospital and Aisha Hospital to treat its elements (the latter is considered the headquarters of the “313 militia” according to the sources),; in addition to the presence of medical centers serving the militias in al-Heri and al-Swi’eiyyah areas.
Most of the private hospitals were closed because of militia harassment, which at times amounted to “beating medical personnel”, which spread fear among the areas medical staff.
On the communication level, most of the landlines are still out of order, with some Internet-controlled halls. As such, the weak internet connection prevents the users from sending and receiving videos.
The restrictive methods employed in the city include mobile phones selling activities, which are directly controlled by one of the militias in the region. This faction receives periodic payments from the owners of the shops on the pretext of water and electricity bills, according to one source.
About the city of al-Bukamal
Al-Bukamal is located 130 kilometers from the governorate of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, and 8 kilometers from the border with Iraq, and its foundation dates back to the year 1850 AD, when Iraqis migrated to the east of the city.
In 1864, an Ottoman decree was issued to form a “Qishla” (military barracks) in the city, which was called “Al-Nahama”, before going through several stages, the last of which was in the time of the Al-Qaim Maqam, Ahmad Afandi, who is considered the first founder of al-Bukamal, according to the what Hamid al-Sayyid Ramadan, researcher in historical affairs, told eSyria in 2009.
The city has taken several names since its establishment, including “al-Nahama” or “Qishla”, then al-Bukamal in relation to one of the Uqaydat tribes, which are spread in the Syrian east.
During the Syrian revolution, many of the city’s residents participated in the protests and were killed by the regime forces, causing hundreds of army personnel in the city to defect and join the ranks of the Free Syrian Army, which in November 2012 declared taking control of the entire city after seizing the artillery and the air defense battalions.
The city remained under the control of the Free Syrian Army, until July 2014, when ISIS claimed control of it. Following the announcement, al-Bukamal was transformed into a major stronghold of the terrorist organization and became a target for the international alliance aviation. Later, the Syrian regime forces, backed by Iranian militias, seized the city in November 2017.
Cultural character and sectarian activities… Endeavors for “demographic change” serving Iranian interests in Syria
The Iranian military and economic interest in the city of al-Bukamal follows a cultural and social one; in an attempt to stabilize the Iranian presence by enhancing its acceptance and involvement with the local community.
The Syrian journalist Musab al-Hant, who is originally from Deir Ez-Zor and currently based in Turkey, spoke to Enab Baladi about the most prominent features of Iranian cultural dominance in al-Bukamal, through his continuous communications with the population of the city, referring to operations to “take over the houses of the regime’s oppositionists” in which the militias of al-Bukamal started to “localize its elements.”
As a result, there are talks in al-Bukamal about a “demographic change” in the city for “sectarian” goals, by infiltrating the customs of the local community, which is mostly Sunni, and exploiting people’s poverty, explained the Syrian researcher and writer Moein al-Sheikh, who is from Deir Ez-Zor, to Enab Baladi.
Al-Sheikh and al-Hant agreed that the strategy followed by Iran to bring about “demographic change” in al-Bukamal is diversified. In addition to offering material inducements, Iran has also been building Hosayniyas, cultural centers and schools to attract children.
Cultural impact and using money to spread Shiite doctrine
According to al-Hant, the Iranian cultural centers, spread in Deir Ez-Zor, and al-Bukamal and their countryside, “aim to change the brutal image of the Iranian fighter,” through holding activities in those centers such as music, art, dance, in addition to celebrating religious and non-religious events.
Al-Sheikh did not agree with al-Hant, explaining that the Iranians are aiming to “interfere with the city’s religious orientation and change it”. He affirmed that the population of al-Bukamal did not exhibit any sense of interest in these centers for several reasons; the first of which is the religious-ideological inclination of the area’s inhabitants, and the second lies in the fact that the number of Iranians exceeds the number of the city’s locals.
Al-Hant indicated that Iran is seeking to change the religious belief in any area it controls and not only in the city of al-Bukamal. Thus, the aim of this designated change in al-Bukamal is to transform it into an advanced base for Iran on the Iraqi-Syrian border towards Syria, according to al-Sheikh.
Al-Sheikh and al-Hant believe that Iran has not succeeded in bringing about ideological change and attracting people to implement its ideology, due to the religious character of the eastern region, including al-Bukamal.
Al-Hant conveyed that Iran did not succeed in spreading the Shiite belief in the city, noting, according to information confirmed by his communication with the city’s locals, that Iran pumped a lot of funds and in return could not buy people’s religious belief, except for “a few of them.”
Focusing on children
The Imam al-Mahdi Scouts’ activities have been established in several regions in Syria, including al-Bukamal, where children are being trained in a manner similar to the training of military units, in addition to indoctrinating them religiously in the Hosayniyas’ classes.
The Imam al-Mahdi Scouts is an association founded in 1985 in Lebanon, and aims, as it defines itself, to “create an Islamic generation” according to the concept of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist. Thus, this association targets the children at early ages, according to what al-Sheikh told Enab Baladi.
Al-Hant confirmed the ongoing activities led by the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts in al-Bukamal, noting that the association is considered as the main agent for recruiting children. This opinion was backed by al-Sheikh, who asserted that Iran is seeking to use the young scouts, after graduating and being religiously indoctrinated by the association to enhance its presence in the region.
The main scout center in the eastern region is located in al-Bukamal, in addition to another one in al-Quriyah area. However, the number of graduates from the scouts’ centers is not significant, estimated at dozens, as the area’s population did not exhibit much interest in joining these facilities, according to al-Hant.
Militias support Iran in al-Bukamal … effective Arab and foreign mixture
Iran adopts a single policy to stabilize itself in most of the countries in which it interferes (Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria). This policy consists mainly of recruiting military militias, in order to ensure its stability, spread, and control over the social and economic files in the designated areas.
Iran has been applying this policy elaborately in the Syrian city of al-Bukamal for two years, as it deployed hundreds of elements from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, in addition to its Iranian fighters and recruited hundreds of local civilians.
The Iraqi fighters in Syria receive about $ 400 a month through MasterCard cards handed to them by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF); while fighters of other nationalities charge their money in cash and hand to hand. The salaries of the local Syrian fighters are paid directly by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with amounts, depending on the individual tasks entrusted to them, i.e. those who serve in their cities and villages receive $ 100 per month, while those who head to the front lines receive $ 150 in addition to military vehicles, fuel vouchers and funds allocated to various expenses, according to information published by the US channel Al-Hurra.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
Iran’s IRGC militia is on the list of militias operating in al-Bukamal, and it is primarily responsible for the city and its countryside. Iran has appointed a commander called Hajj Salman, an Iranian national, who is also the de facto governor of al-Bukamal, to lead this militia.
Hajj Salman’s Battalion 47, which includes approximately 100 members, is also affiliated to the IRGC.
In terms of military significance in the city of al-Bukamal, the IRGC militia is followed by the Iraqi al-Nujaba Movement, which is led by a person called Karrar al-Iraqi, includes more than 2000 fighters, distributed between the al-Bukamal and its countryside and the desert.
Liwa Haydaryoun, led by a person called Abu Fatima, is affiliated to al-Nujaba Movement. Thus this battalion’s headquarters and its military locations are always spread alongside al-Nujaba movement.
The Lebanese Hezbollah has deployed Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese fighters in al-Bukamal. However, this militia’s leadership rests with the movement’s Iraqi wing, and the name of the militia’s commander is still unknown, as this battalion operates with great secrecy.
The militia includes about 1000 fighters, most of whom are deployed in the area of al-Kam station and its surroundings, south of the city of al-Bukamal.
According to Enab Baladi’s source, the Hezbollah fighters in al-Bukamal do not get along with people, nor do they necessarily know each other.
The Followers of Zainab Brigade and Liwa Fatemiyoun
The Followers of Zainab Brigade and Liwa Fatemiyoun are two militias from Afghanistan and Pakistan, on which Iran relied extensively while participating alongside the Syrian regime in its battles against the opposition.
However, the two battalions broke some of the secrecy that Iran was adopting in Syrian cities, as they invited the locals of al-Bukamal to volunteer among their ranks. Thus, about 400 members joined both militias.
Members of this militia are mostly located in the Badia region of al-Bukamal region, as they tend not to mark a significant presence in the city.
The 313 militia
This militia operates in the Deir Ez-Zor valley starting from al-Bukamal, and includes 200 fighters, who possess various light and heavy weapons, in addition to four-wheel-drive vehicles equipped with 23 and 14.5 anti-aircraft guns, according to a report published by Sada Al Sharqieh network.
This division is mainly deployed in the Badia region, and it has several checkpoints, the most important of which is the checkpoint at the panorama area and another one on the airport road.
This militia is led by an Iraqi named Abu Jaafar, and has its headquarters in the city of al-Bukamal. Thus, some of its elements have recently been transferred to the city of Deir Ez-Zor, under the supervision of the IRGC militia.
The militia has been named 313, in reference to the Shiite belief of the 313 followers of the Mahdi, who will pledge allegiance to him in his battle against the disbelievers.
The National Defense
Iran has formed local militias in the city of al-Bukamal, including the National Defense. Thus, most of this militia’s elements, which are led by a person called Ibn Mashout, are from the city of al-Bukamal, and their number is estimated at 400.
This militia is considered as unorganized, as it depends on looting. Thus, young affiliates joined this militia to escape ISIS-controlled areas.
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