By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Just after midnight, in the first hours of Monday morning, loud explosions were heard in an around the Syrian town of Albukamal near the Iraqi border. Very quickly reports emerged that “Iranian” or “Iranian-backed militias” had been targeted in the attacks. These appeared similar to a June 2018 airstrike that targeted a Kata’ib Hezbollah base at a similar location.
The September 9, 2019 airstrikes occur amid increased tensions between Iran and the US and between Israel and Iranian-backed groups such as Hezbollah. They also come after five similar mysterious airstrikes in Iraq between July 19 and August 25, and just days after satellite images revealed a new Iranian base allegedly being constructed in Albukamal. Fox News reported on September 4 that the new base was a “classified Iranian project, call the Imam Ali compound.”
Going off of social media reports, with very little evidence from the ground, many assume the attacks struck the Iranian or Hashd al-Shaabi, Iraqi militia, targets. That is what Al-Masdar and other sites said. There is only one video online that appears to show the explosions after the strikes. Social media accounts which are impossible to verify in terms of their access to knowledge have claimed the Imam Ali complex of Iran was targeted. The airstrikes came just a day after reports indicated the Albukamal Iraq-Syria border crossing was supposed to open. Since earlier this year work has gone into creating a new border crossing at the site. Albukamal was occupied by ISIS from 2014 to 2017 and has only recently been fully cleared of ISIS threats while the Syrian regime and Iraqi army seek to rehabilitate the area. It is a strategic crossroads between Iraq and Syria and is near US forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces that control the area north of the Euphrates, north of Albukamal.
Al-Arabiya and others asserted that the airstrikes hit a militia called Al-Abdal, Haidarion and Kata’ib Hezbollah. Al-Arabiya also claimed that Iran is deploying members of Lebanese Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba from Iraq and its Fatimion and Zeinabion militias from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the area alongside the IRGC.
The existence of the Iranian investment in Albukamal is now well known and it was reasonable that many sites would claim that this was the target of the explosions. For instance the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Al-Hurra that the Iranian positions were likely struck. SOHR says it documented heavy casulaties from the airstrikes and at least 18 Iranians and their allies were killed. Ammunition depots exploded. “Unidentified planes have so far targeted concentrations of Iranian forces and their militias in and around Albukamal. According to Dier Ezzor 24, a media network, the Syrian army had sent elements of the 4th division to the area on August 28 “to replace Iranian Revolutionary Guards Forces.”
Sputnik news in Arabic reported that US pressure in Iraq had stopped the crossing from opening on time this week. “A source in the Popular Mobilization Forces told Sputnik that the crossing is expected to be open within nine days.” It was the PMF that was allegedly targeted on September 9.
Some questioned whether the explosions were airstrikes, pointing out a lack of air defense against them. Forces in the city were on high alert throughout the morning. Syrian state media and other major media linked to pro-Iranian networks did not report the alleged airstrikes.
In other news a member of the Nujaba militia was killed in Albukamal on September 6.
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Rudaw reports on Albukamal airstrikes based on SOHR