The fall of Syria’s strategic Albu Kamal border crossing with Iraq to the hands of opposition fighters is seen to have dealt a major blow to the Assad’s regime.
The Syrian armed opposition took control on Friday of the crossing, which separates the Iraqi town of al-Qaim –340 kilometers west of Baghdad – and the Syrian city of Albu Kamal.
Regime forces have failed to retake the crossing in a counter attack on Saturday.
The seizure of the crossings comes as Syrian rebels took control of two border posts with Turkey and attempted to overrun another border point along the Jordanian frontier.
“The opposition controlling this border is a major blow to the regime in Syria,” said Hamid Fadhel, a politics professor at Baghdad University.
“Holding territory at the border will weaken the regime, which was looking to cut off any support for the opposition.”
Fadhel added: “This situation will strengthen the position of the opposition and will weaken the position of the Syrian government, which was looking to continue controlling the border crossing in order to prevent smuggling of reinforcements [of people and supplies] for the opposition.”
Syria’s frontier with Iraq is about 600 kilometer long, with more than half it bordering Iraq’s Anbar province, which has a Sunni majority population.
Syria’s population is majority Sunni Arab, but the country has long been ruled by Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
The Albu Kamal border crossing located in al-Anbar is one of the three main crossing points between Iraq and Syria, as well as al-Walid crossings in al-Anbar, and el-Ierbeh crossing northwest of Baghdad, which was also seized by the armed opposition on Saturday.
Al-Qaim’s mayor Farhan Farhan told AFP that trade through the crossing had ground to a halt about a month and a half ago, when Syrian rebels first began trying to take control of Albu Kamal.
“It used to consist of 40 trucks from Syria to Iraq on a daily basis, each carrying about 27 tons of vegetables, other food supplies, clothes and electronics,” he said.
“The people of al-Qaim depend completely on Syrian goods, because they are cheaper than those coming from” the rest of Iraq, he said.
Trade between Iraq and Syria reached $2 billion in 2010, and was expected to reach $3 billion for 2011, according to official Iraqi and Syrian figures.
Residents of al-Qaim, interviewed by AFP spoke of how, in mid-2005, when US forces mounted an offensive in the area in an effort to round up Sunni insurgents, people in Albu Kamal provided them with supplies, fighters and weapons.
Now, they want to return the favor, but the Iraqi army has barred anyone from crossing the border, except for Iraqis fleeing the violence in Syria.
“If the Iraqi army were not preventing us, we would have given everything we could to our people in Albu Kamal,” said 25-year-old civil servant Abu Yusuf.
“We feel sad seeing them attacked, and see that they do not have enough food and medicine, and we are unable to help them like we should. We want to stand by their side, like they stood by us.”
By Friday, after rebels took control of Albu Kamal, Al-Qaim was flooded with security personnel, with several Iraqi army and police units deployed to establish checkpoints and carry out patrols and Iraqi officials closed down the border crossing completely.
“All we want is to let the families leave Albu Kamal and go to Al-Qaim, and for the wounded to be treated on the other side of the border, and for us to get food and medicine,” said Khalid Abu Ziad, an officer with the rebel Free Syrian Army units currently controlling Albu Kamal.
“We do not need weapons – we have enough already.”