I sat in the back of a van that bounced into a remote training base in Northern Syria. Like many of my Kurdish hosts, I was technically in the country illegally after being smuggled in from adjacent Kurdistan. It was 2014 and the war was young, none of us knowing how much bloodshed was still to come. We parked our vehicles and stepped out onto what turned out to be a rail yard. At the time, I passed between the train cars, stepping over the rail, and walked into the Kurdish YPG training base without giving the railroad a second thought.

Little did I know of the importance of the railroad running through Syria and Iraq, and the critical rail junction that existed at the training base I had arrived at near Qamishlo, Syria which connects to Mosul, Iraq.

Syrian rail near Qamishlo. (picture courtesy of the author)

The birth of rail in Syria and Iraq can be traced back to the late 1800’s as Germany envisioned a rail line linking Baghdad (and ultimately Basra on the Persian Gulf) with Berlin. This would have provided a way for the European power to project force, influence, and economic power into the Arabian peninsula. Had this project been completed, it could have fed the Prussian war machine with an endless supply of oil. Meanwhile, the proud British Navy had always maintained dominance at sea. This fact would be of little use once Germany secured a land bridge into the Middle East.

The first Iraqi rail line opened in 1914, linking Baghdad and Samarra. The British military was invested in stopping the railroad upon the onset of World War One and after the war, the Brits remained and continued to improve Iraq’s rail infrastructure linking Baghdad and Basra. In subsequent decades Iraqi rail carried both freight and passengers. During the Saddam years, the railroad was maintained and some small improvements made. During the Gulf War and again during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the railroads were shut down. During the Gulf the rail line was intentionally disabled, but during OIF it was left intact for later use. Nonetheless, during the American occupation the railroad fell into disuse and disrepair. Parts of it were still running, but needed a lot of work.