From a ridge known locally as Baghouz Mountain, the most competitive corner of the Middle East is like an oasis: it’s a green patch on the desert horizon that stretches from the banks of the Euphrates to an expansive area of new homes, in where new – and unruly – houses are housed. Neighbors.
Small movements in the heat of the day. The river that has supplied Iraq and eastern Syria over the centuries comes alive at night, as does the city of al-Bukamal, where smugglers, militias, proxy groups, mercenaries and the armies of three nations since the juggernaut of the Islamic State have been here before defeated three years.
The intervening turmoil devastated much of Deir ez-Zor province and left it unreconciled. Many residents are still missing or displaced, and the war against the terrorist group is simmering. On the main roads, beaten tractors and tankers give way to passing convoys of American and Russian combat vehicles. French and US attack helicopters cross the skies and coalition special forces still hold bases.
In al-Bukamal, the mix of players and the struggle for influence is even more powerful: Shiite militias from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon – including Hezbollah – as well as Russian mercenaries, Sunni tribesmen and the Syrian army, observed by Kurdish forces across the river.
This border town has become the most strategic point in the region. Whoever secures the passage here has a decisive influence on what happens on both sides of the Euphrates. “That’s why we’re here and watch the spectacle,” said a Kurdish officer on the ridge above Baghouz. “All of the land before us will be fought over for years to come.”
At the end of August, the Kurds were awakened at night by loud explosions at a medium distance. “We could hear the jets, but they weren’t there long,” said another officer. “They were Israelis, as we learned later. Their strikes are different from those of the Americans. “
Over the past three years, al-Bukamal and its entrances, as well as the city of al-Qaim just across the Iraqi border, have been regularly hit by air strikes. The targets are locations associated with Iran-backed militias that use the city to move weapons and money from Iraq to Syria. Al-Bukamal has become the main artery of a three-decade-old Iranian project aimed at securing an arc of influence from Iraq to Syria to the Mediterranean.
Creating such an access, which would also cement a bridgehead in Syria for Hezbollah – the Lebanese militia – was a strategic goal of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani and his ally Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, both of whom were involved in a US air strike in early 2020 were murdered in Baghdad.
Iran’s plans to build the corridor were first supported by the observer in October 2016, and efforts have intensified in the five years since then – particularly after Suleimani’s death. “The air strikes are quite regular,” said the Kurdish officer. “They are very short and usually very harmful. Whoever it is knows what he wants to meet. “
Five people were injured in an alleged Israeli drone attack on the city on October 8. Five people were killed in a major strike on September 21. As early as January, dozens were killed in the most extensive attacks to date. “They never bother us,” said the Kurdish soldier, staring through binoculars at a Syrian military position. “I’m not sure if the Iranians mind either. Al-Bukamal is still very busy. A lot is smuggled through al-Qaim, and some of it crosses the river in boats. “
Al-Bukamal residents say the city has changed a lot since the Islamic State was ousted. “When the Shiites moved in, the fear was just as great,” said worker Khaled Sohail. “The Iranians have a lot of money to spend and have influenced the tribes. But they’re not the worst – it’s the Hash al-Shadid [Popular Mobilisation Forces, raised in 2014 to fight Isis] which scare everyone. They are Shiites and very sectarian. “
Three other residents of al-Bukamal confirmed the belief of European officials that an Iranian officer using the name Hajj Asker is a significant figure. The militia he led – 47 Brigade of Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi deputy loyal to Iran – controls much of the city but has alienated residents and tribal leaders.
Most of the 47 Brigade’s local recruits are from the Mashahada and Jughaifi tribes. “They sold the city to Iran,” said a resident of Al-Bukamal. “And they did that cheaply. You help the smuggling. It won’t end well. “
“They’re making their way into the area,” said a second resident. “There are people who pray like Shiites. What happens there changes not only the region but also the city itself. There are schools that learn Persian history and Shiite religious leaders who influence the communities. They are more powerful than Bashar’s army standing by while Iran and its friends make their own plans. “
Across the Euphrates in Baghouz, where Isis put up his last resistance in early 2019, Kurdish officers from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) patrol the banks and eye Syrian soldiers on the other half of a collapsed bridge that spans the cities Association .
“Isis knocked it down to stop the others from attacking her,” said one of the officers, Agin Afrin. “Then they tried to build their own bridge.” He pointed to a pile of stones halfway up the slowly moving water. “When the rain comes, the rest will be washed away. We see the regime every day. You cannot do anything on their or our side. “
Baghouz is now a silent witness to the struggle for influence that is unfolding nearby. Farmers have returned, sunflower fields shimmering in the evening breeze and sharing the river bank with rows of pomegranate trees. The Kurds pass the fruit around as they trudge through long reeds. “Everyone fought for this country,” said Afrin. “At least 5,000 Isis people died in the city behind us [Baghouz]. I often wonder why here. How did this part of the Middle East come to be so important in history? And what will it look like in two years? “
As the sun set on the Euphrates, men and women who had returned to Baghouz hesitantly approached to speak. “They attacked us from the other side of the bridge,” said a man from the Shiite armed forces and the Syrian army at the end of 2018. “We were scared of them and then Isis came along. This country is cursed. “
One of the Kurdish officers added: “They think it’s their country and others have a say, including us. I don’t see the end of the fighting. “
Additional coverage from Barzan Salam