Iranian Militias Reach Syrian Border
Iran has almost locked in its ‘Shia crescent’ foreign-policy objective.
Iranian-backed forces are hacking a path to the Mediterranean. On May 29, Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) reached the Iraq-Syria border. The PMU, though officially a part of the Iraqi government security forces, is comprised of Iranian-backed Shiite militias. By cutting a swath from Iran to Baghdad, Baghdad to Mosul, and now Mosul to the border, Tehran is on the verge of connecting a land bridge to Syrian President Bashar Assad, and beyond. This would finally link what Watch Jerusalem and many commentators call the “Shia crescent.”
This development and the subsequent strengthening of Iran’s presence in Syria means that “the threat of Iranian dominance in the region is immediate,” Israel’s Intelligence Ministry Director-General Chagai Tzuriel told the Jerusalem Post, June 6.
“Iran’s strengthening in Syria is an issue that must be addressed right now,” he said. If Iran succeeds in creating a land bridge “it would be a strategic game changer.”
Cutting Off the Kurds
While the PMU has been kept away from the battle for Mosul, they have been given free reign to target the Islamic State to the west. This has turned into a gift to Iran. Gen. Qassem Suleimani has led his forces west from Mosul, skirting just below Kurdish-held territory. In doing so, he has driven a wedge between the Kurds and the Islamic State. It was a cunning play.
After liberating Sinjar in 2015, the Kurds had stagnated. Infighting set in between the local Yazidis and the Kurdish Peshmerga from Erbil. The Kurds originally wanted the region for part of a future state. Then the Islamic State took it from them. As the Kurds have attempted to take it back, squabbling over control has arisen. As they bickered, the PMU charged in and stole the prize.
The race to the Syrian border has taken the Kurds by surprise. The PMU cut the road between Kurdish-controlled Sinjar and Islamic State-controlled town of Baa’j.
Now, neither Iraq nor the Kurds control the formerly-Islamic State region, Iran does.
As the National Interest wrote, “The new corridor that the PMU has carved out links Syria—via Mosul and Baghdad—with Tehran. It has redrawn the map of Iraq, placing the Shia militias solidly astride the country.”
But when the PMU reached the border, they didn’t reach Assad.
The PMU cannot continue directly west. Doing so would involve fighting in territory controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces—backed by United States firepower. Trying to go north won’t work either. The northern mountains are Islamic State-free and zealously defended by the Kurds. The best option is to go south. The prize to the south will be Qa’im. The border town is one of the Islamic State’s last supply lines and an excellent opportunity for Iran. Once Qa’im is taken, the PMU will be closer than ever to Syrian government-controlled territory.
The last thing standing between Iran and her goal will be the expanse of the Syrian desert and the border town of al Tanf.
This is where it will get tricky. The town is controlled by U.S.-backed rebel forces. It is here that Assad and the PMU hope to connect.
‘Race for the Ruins’
Johnathan Spyer wrote a piece for the Jerusalem Post highlighting the race that is on to connect forces. Assad is pushing east toward the oncoming PMU. The U.S. is trying to keep them separated. On May 18, the U.S. launched strikes on a column of Assad regime forces on their way to al Tanf. The column included tanks and earthmovers. The U.S. cannot let the border crossing fall. Doing so would allow Assad an open road all the way to Tehran.
As the Washington Institute stated, “The post-Islamic State battlefield is being prepared, and the formerly ‘useless’ eastern part of Syria is taking on much greater strategic importance in the competition between the east-west ‘Shiite axis’ and north-south ‘Sunni axis.’”
It is a battle of the crossroads.
America wants to forge a Sunni path from Jordan to Turkey. Iran wants to forge a path from Iran to the Mediterranean. It is a race to see who will connect through the Syrian desert first.
If the U.S.-backed forces complete their north-south bridge first, Assad and the PMU could find themselves fighting directly against U.S. forces—or at least better supplied rebels. If the PMU takes Qa’im and Assad reaches al Tanf—completing their bridge east-west—then the U.S. will have to make a decision. If it tries to sever the link, it will have to fight the PMU, risking direct conflict with Iran. But allowing the PMU to reach Assad would spell disaster for the rebels.
It would also spell disaster for Israel.
Power of the Shiite Crescent
Imagine what Iran could do with an open road direct to Israel’s northern border. Remember, Iran links to Iraq. Iraq links to Syria. Syria links to Lebanon, and Lebanon shares a border with Israel. Already Iran has managed to stockpile a 100,000-plus missile arsenal in the Lebanese foothills. Israel has worked to destroy missile convoys from Syria en route to Hezbollah, but there is no way it can catch them all. An open road would only increase Iran’s weapons shipments to Assad and Hezbollah—strengthening the Shiite crescent.
That road hasn’t been completed yet, but the next few weeks will be crucial.
Watch Jerusalem has discussed how Iraq was going to fall to Iran. The Islamic State has proved to be the perfect excuse to takeover. The Iran-led PMU now controls a stretch of territory that ranges from border to border!