In late July, the Commander of the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Qasem Soleimani, visited the Albu Kamal crossing connecting Syria and Iraq and met with commanders of pro-Iranian militias in the region. Meanwhile, a pro-opposition Syrian website published a report regarding a meeting in Albu Kamal of military delegations from Syria and Iraq, in the presence of senior Iranian security officials, as part of the preparations to open the new border crossing between Syria and Iraq. These reports follow recently published reports on ongoing preparation for the re-opening of the crossing, which is seen by Iran as strategically important.
In the economic sphere, Iran is preparing to participate in the international fair set to be held in Damascus soon. The Syrian ambassador to Tehran invited Iranian companies to participate in the fair and promised incentives to companies that will play a role in the reconstruction of his country. Meanwhile, the chairman of the committee for expanding economic ties between Iran, Syria and Iraq declared that Syria’s reconstruction provides a good opportunity for Iranian firms to export technical and engineering services to it. At the same time, Iran and Iraq signed an agreement to expand commercial ties between them, and also concluded a deal on establishing joint investment funds.
In early August, a delegation of high-ranking commanders of the Iraqi Shi’ite pro-Iranian militia, Harakat al-Nujaba’, visited Iran. In meetings with Iranian officials, the members of the delegation underscored their commitment to the Islamic Republic under the leadership of Khamenei, and threatened to act against American interests in Iraq, in light of the ongoing escalation between Iran and the United States.
Recent reports about the visit of the Hamas delegation to Tehran at the end of July indicate that during the visit, the representatives of Iran and Hamas agreed to expand cooperation between them. These reports indicate that Iran promised Hamas to advocate on its behalf with the Syrian regime, to allow Hamas’ leadership to return to Damascus and improve relations between the Palestinian faction and the Syrian leadership, after the rift emerged between the two sides following the outbreak of the civil war in Syria.
Iranian Involvement in Syria
Syrian and Turkish sources reported that the Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Qasem Soleimani, visited the area adjacent to the Albu Kamal crossing connecting Syria and Iraq on July 25, and met with pro-Iranian militias operation in the region. According to these reports, during his visit, Soleimani met with IRGC commanders stationed in Albu Kamal, toured the city and the border crossing, and called for speeding up its re-opening. In addition, Soleimani spoke to members of the pro-Iranian militias, including Syrian fighters operating with the groups, and told them that they must be prepared for a possible military confrontation between Iran and the United States (DeirEzzor24, July 29; the Turkish Anadolu Agency, July 27). Soon after, the Telegram channel of the Afghan Fatimiyoun Brigade, a militia that operates under the control of the IRGC, published (July 29) Soleimani’s photo along with fighters of the militia. It is unclear when the photo was taken, but it is possible that the meeting between Soleimani with the Fatimiyoun fighters took place in his last visit to Syria.
Meanwhile, a Syrian pro-opposition news website reported, based on sources in Deir Ezzor, about a meeting that took place on August 5 between military delegations from Syria and Iraq, in the presence of senior Iranian security officials; the focus of the meeting was the re-opening of the Syrian and Iraqi border crossing. According to the report, the delegations reached an understanding concerning the establishment of joint military points, deploying customs and civilian police, and the presence of Iranian security forces in the border crossing (DeirEzzor24, August 6).
Recently, Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese media reported that preparations are underway to open the new border crossing between Syria and Iraq in Albu Kamal. As part of the preparations, senior officers from Syria, Iraq and Iran met in Damascus for security coordination. The Albu Kamal border crossing is seen by Iran as strategically important, since it is an essential area in the ground line of supply that Iran seeks to establish, stretching from its territory to the Mediterranean. The upgraded border crossing, once opened, will allow for the movement of a larger number of vehicles, compared to the past capacity of the crossing. The location of the crossing, far from civilian areas, will provide a level of clandestineness to the operation of the crossing. Therefore, it is likely that the construction of the new crossing is being carried out with Iranian assistance and possibly direct involvement. In addition, Iran is assisting in securing the area between al-Qaim (in Iraq) and Albu Kamal through Shi’ite militias operating under its guidance stationed in the region.
The Syrian Ambassador to Tehran, Adnan Hassan Mahmoud, invited Iranian companies to participate in the Damascus international fair, set to take place in a few months. During a visit to the Iran International Exhibitions Company (IIEC), the Syrian ambassador called on Iranian firms to invest in the reconstruction of his country, adding that Syria will provide special incentives to Iranian firms operating in the country. The ambassador further remarked that the economic sanctions against Iran are providing an opportunity to expand cooperation between Iran and Syria. The Executive Director of the IIEC, Bahman Hosseinzadeh, reported that the company will assist private Iranian businesses that will participate in the international fair in Syria (Tasnim, July 31).
Meanwhile, Hassan Danaeifar, the Chairman of the committee for expanding economic ties between Iran, Syria and Iraq, stated that Syria’s reconstruction is providing a good opportunity to Iranian companies and the private sector to export technical and engineering services. He added that Iran is willing to cooperate with Syria in all economic and industrial spheres, and that Iranian private companies will not invest funds in Syria, but carry out projects there (Mehr, August 6).
The Senior Adviser to the Syrian President, Bouthaina Shaaban, labeled the relationship between Syria and Iran “historic and strategic.” In a speech at a Tartous cultural center, Shaaban declared that the strategic relationship between the two countries since the Islamic Revolution will never be affected by those assailing Iran for the benefit of Israel and the Zionists (Fars, August 5).
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
In late July, Iraq and Iran signed an agreement to expand economic cooperation between them. The Iranian Trade Attaché in Baghdad, Naser Behzad, told the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) that the agreement was signed during the visit to Iraq of a delegation headed by the chairman of the Iranian Organization for Trade Development. As part of the agreement, the two countries will establish a joint industrial city, facilitate the travel of businesspeople between the two countries, increase the frequency of Iranian trade fairs in Iraq and remove bureaucratic hurdles impeding the export of Iranian goods to Iraq. In addition, the two countries agreed to establish joint investment funds (IRNA, July 29-30). The Executive Director of the Joint Iranian-Iraqi Chamber of Commerce, Seyyed Hamid Hosseini, recently assessed that Iranian companies will take part in reconstruction projects in Iraq worth up to 300 billion dollars. 25% of the projects are the field of construction and housing (Tasnim, July 31).
In early August, a delegation of the Iraqi Shi’ite pro-Iranian militia, Harakat al-Nujaba’, arrived for a visit in Iran. The delegation was headed by Nasr al-Shammari, the Deputy Secretary General and Spokesman of Harakat al-Nujaba’. The delegation met with senior Iranian government officials and clerics and too part in a conference focusing on U.S. presence in western Asia, held in Tehran with participation of representatives from several Arab countries.
On August 3, the members of the delegation met with the senior cleric, Ayatollah Alireza Arafi, the director of religious seminaries in the city of Qom. The next day, the delegation met with the Chairman of the Majlis Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, Mojtaba Zolnour. The head of the delegation reiterated the commitment of Harakat al-Nujaba’ to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. He vowed that if the U.S. Congress passes a bill sanctioning every Iraqi who support Iran, the Iraqi resistance groups will cut the ties between Baghdad and Washington and expel the American ambassador from Baghdad (Tasnim, August 4).
In addition, the delegation met with the Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, Yahya Rahim Safavi; with the member of the Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili; and with the Secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council, Mohsen Rezaei. Safavi told members of the delegation that is crucial to amend the Iraqi constitution to recognize the Popular Mobilization Units (the umbrella of the largely Shi’ite militias operating in the country). He remarked that Iraq and Iran complement each other in terms of culture, economy and security and that safeguarding Iraq is akin to protecting Iraq, and safeguarding Baghdad is akin to protecting Tehran. He added that the Zionists fear that Iran and Iraq will join forces, and are trying to create fissures between the Iraqis and the Kurds. The head of the al-Nujaba’ delegation provided an update in the meeting about the presence of the Shi’ite militias in the Albu Kamal region on the Syria-Iraq border, stating that al-Nujaba’ fighters are carrying out intelligence and operational monitoring of the area, and also keep track of bases used by U.S. forces in Iraq (Tasnim. August 4).
On August 5, the Iranian Ambassador to Baghdad, Iraj Masjedi, met with the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, and discussed bilateral relations between the two nations and developments in the region. The two also discussed the upcoming trip of the Speaker of the Iranian Majlis, Ali Larijani, to Baghdad. In late July 2019, Ambassador Masjedi met with the Iraqi Minister of Transportation, Abdullah Luaibi, and discussed preparations ahead of the Arabeen ceremonies, which involve pilgrimage to the Shi’ite holy sites in Iraq, set to be held in October 2019, forty days after the fast of Asuhra’. The two officials agreed to form a joint committee that will make the necessary arrangements to facilitate the arrival of the Iranian pilgrims (Fars, August 5).
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
Israeli Channel 12 reported based on an Arab source (August 6), that during the visit of the Hamas delegation headed by Salah al-‘Arouri in Tehran in late July, Iran asked the Palestinian faction for intelligence on the location of missile depots of the IDF, and agreed to increase the support provided to Hamas to $30 million per month. The report also claimed that members of the Hamas delegation asked Iran to assist it in mediating with the Syrian regime. We have no way to assess the credibility of the report.
Meanwhile, former Iranian diplomat, Amir Mousavi, who heads the Tehran Center for Strategic Research, commented on the visit of the Hamas delegation to Tehran, stating that Iran is seeing to establish a military front countering Israel uniting Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip, in case of future conflict. In an interview to the newspaper Filasteen Al-Youm (July 30), Mousavi remarked that the visit of the Hamas delegation to Tehran was successful and that Iran has initiated a mediation effort vis-à-vis the Syrian leadership to reconcile Hamas and Damascus and allow the organization to re-establish its official presence in Syria.