Opposition fighters have seized control of many of Syria’s border crossings with Iraq, dealing a new blow to President Bashar al-Assad, an Iraqi official has said.
Hakim al-Zamili, head of the security and defence committee in Iraqi parliament, told a local television station on Thursday that rebels were in control of the Abu Kamal border crossing, on the Damascus-Baghdad highway and one of the most important trade routes in the Middle East.
Qassim al-Dulaimi, Iraqi Army Brigadier General said about a half-dozen rebels also stormed the Syrian border crossing near the Iraqi town of Qaim.
He said the rebels forced the border guards from their posts but did not cross into Iraq. Qaim is located about 320km to the west of Baghdad.
“We have security concerns because the border crossing now is out of the Syria government’s control, and nobody can anticipate what will happen,'” Dulaimi said.
However, local Iraqi officials said two other major border crossings remained in control of the Syrian regime.
Mohammed Fathi, spokesman for the governor of Iraq’s western Anbar province that includes Qaim, said the largest port at al-Walid, which is also located near the Jordanian border and accounts or an estimated 90 per cent of traffic between Iraq and Syria remained in the government’s hands.
The border between Iraq and Syria extends for 605km.
Contacted by telephone, Adnan al-Assadi, Iraq’s deputy interior minister, said Iraqi border guards had witnessed the Free Syrian Army take control of a border outpost, detain a Syrian army lieutenant colonel, and then cut off his arms and legs.
“Then they executed 22 Syrian soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers,” Assadi said.
“If this situation continues, we are going to close the entire border with Syria,” he added.
Earlier on Thursday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels had also seized control of a post on the border with Turkey.
“Rebel fighters seized control of the Bab al-Hawa crossing [in the northwestern province of Idlib],” the rights group said, adding that the rebels removed a photograph of Assad that was displayed there.
“The crossing is under our control. They withdrew their armoured vehicles,” said a rebel fighter who would only be
identified as Ali, being treated for wounds on the Turkish side.
Bab al Hawa is a key border crossing with Turkey which rebels first attacked at dawn on Thursday, the third time
in 10 days rebels tried to seize this vital commercial crossing in northwestern Syria, opposite the Turkish Cilvegozu gate in Hatay province.
Ahmad Zaidan, spokesman for an opposition group called the Higher Council of the Revolution’s Leadership, said
earlier that rebels were in charge of large areas around the border crossing and that they wanted to gain control of
the gate itself.
Zaidan said the raid was also meant to provide an opportunity for opposition sympathisers among the government soldiers to defect. Most defections, he said, were pre-planned whereby sympathisers would know of an impending rebel attack.
The rebels attacked the army garrison made up of some 200 troops but had to pull back when government helicopters
were called in. The rebels had planned for 80 soldiers to defect but only 14 managed to escape, Zaidan said.
The border crossing, which is still under the control of Assad’s forces, has been closed
since the attack and around 40 Syrian and Saudi trucks lined up on the Turkish side were unable to cross.
Cross-border trade and traffic has been greatly reduced as violence inside Syria has increased but border gates
along the 910km Turkey-Syria border have largely remained open and vehicles are free to cross.
Turkey, which has called on Assad to step down, is giving sanctuary to opposition members and fighters on its
soil and is providing shelter to more than 40,000 Syrian refugees fleeing violence at home.