US-backed rebels in the southeastern Syrian desert reopened a border point between Syria and Iraq two months ago, sparking cross-border trade between the two countries for the first time since 2015.
The a-Tanf border crossing, located on the Syrian-Iraqi border along the Damascus-Baghdad highway, now allows civilians, traders and local Bedouin tribes to freely cross between Iraq and Syria says Al-Baraa Faris, a spokesman for the US-backed Maghawir a-Thawra (MAT) rebel militia.
The American-led coalition against the Islamic State currently trains and supplies several rebel factions in the Syrian Badia—the desert spanning much of eastern Syria. The US-led mission is to train and prepare rebels to defeat the Islamic State, Syria Direct reported earlier this month.
Last August, US-backed Iraqi militias drove the Islamic State away from the Iraqi side of the a-Tanf border crossing, with American-led rebels coordinating from the Syrian side.
In March, MAT opened the Tanf border crossing to any vehicles passing through, checking them for explosives and levying a customs duty on the farmers, civilians and truck drivers using the crossing.
MAT inspects a truck at the a-Tanf crossing. Photo courtesy of Maghawir a-Thawra.
“This is the only crossing that lets cars from Iraq into Syria,” Faris tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani. “We won’t hinder civilian trade.”
The proximity of coalition forces—currently stationed at a military base near the crossing on the Syrian side of the border—provides a measure of security for the crossing, the spokesman adds.
“If we ask the coalition for air support, they will not hesitate to assist us.”
Q: Who controls a-Tanf on the Iraqi side?
There is a crossing on the Iraqi side that works in conjunction with the one on the Syrian side, and Jaish al-Ashair al-Iraqi controls it. Today, business is very good.
: Jaish al-Ashair al-Iraqi, composed of fighters from Iraqi tribes, combats the Islamic State in northern Iraq near the Syrian border, in Anbar province and in Mosul.]
Maghawir a-Thawra safeguards the road within its territory.
Q: Where are the vehicles that are crossing heading to? Are they staying in areas under your control?
This is the only crossing that lets cars from Iraq into Syria. The vehicles that enter can go to regime areas, or to Islamic State territory such as Deir e-Zor, Raqqa or the Badia.
It is an independent crossing. We let everyone pass through, regardless of where they are going. Vehicles pass between our area and IS-held areas, but they do that under their own responsibility. We only protect the cars inside territory we control.
Q: You mentioned that cars head for regime and Islamic State areas. Aren’t there fears of terrorist cells or car bombs being sent by the regime or the Islamic State to the a-Tanf border, especially considering the heightened hostilities in the Badia?
Whenever a car enters the crossing, we request the vehicle’s official papers—which must be civilian—and information on the driver.
We thoroughly and carefully check and track each car headed towards IS territory or returning from it. We also check and make that the vehicle is free of any kinds of explosives in the event of a security breach.
If any patrol or trade vehicle were targeted inside the administrative borders of our forces, we would immediately respond. We will not stand idly by in the event of any attempt to target us or advance towards our position.
If we ask the coalition for air support, they will not hesitate to assist us.
Soldiers from MAT man a checkpoint at a-Tanf. Photo courtesy of Maghawir a-Thawra.
Q: What role do American and other coalition forces play in allowing trade to happen at a-Tanf?
The Americans have no issue with us allowing civilians and trade vehicles to pass through the crossing and they have not interfered in the flow of trade.
We won’t hinder civilian trade. In the end, this is a civilian issue and the coalition is a supportive partner to us.
Q: Do travelers or traders pay a customs duty when they cross into Syria?
Yes, vehicle owners travelling to and from Syria and Iraq pay a customs duty in addition to varying duties imposed on goods. Bedouins or farmers transporting sheep across the border, for example, pay a dollar for each sheep. On the other hand, vehicles carrying produce are not required to pay.