The creation of Israel almost 70 years ago physically severed the Arab world’s Maghreb from its Mashreq, creating a wound that continues to fester. Today the Arab world is being bisected once again.
At this very moment, on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, Iranian proxy militias are clearing a path giving Tehran direct land access to the Mediterranean Sea. Just as Israel during the 1947-1948 war purged Palestinians from their villages to massively expand its territory, substantial Arab populations today have been cleared across this vast area to consolidate Iran’s corridor of control.
To the east, the Iraqi province of Diyala has effectively been incorporated into Iran, with its infrastructure and electricity grid merged into that of its neighbor. In 2003, Sunnis represented 60 to 70 percent of Diyala’s population. Trapped between the hammer of Daesh and the anvil of the militias, most Sunnis fled. Since Hadi Al-Amiri was appointed security czar of the province, his Badr militias murdered and terrorized the remaining Sunnis; sending thousands more into exile and preventing others from returning.
From Diyala heading northwest, Iran’s corridor transverses the mainly Sunni governorate of Saladin. All the key towns are under the control of Shiite militants known as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi. Thousands of Saladin’s Sunnis have been forcibly disappeared; many were ransomed off — and then killed anyway. Proud cities like Tikrit witnessed systematic destruction of property on a scale last seen when Mongol invaders thundered into Iraq, via exactly the same route, some 760 years ago.
This passage of Iranian control runs parallel to the Arab-Kurd fault line, fueling tensions in contested towns with diverse communities, such as Tuz Khurmatu, where separating walls were built to halt inter-communal killing triggered by Shiite militants. Next door in Nineveh governorate, Iran’s Hashd militias are pushing tensions to breaking point in towns like Tal Afar and Sinjar, risking conflict with Turkey by allying with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Last year the world was deceived by an elementary sleight-of-hand, following demands that Shiite militias should not be allowed to perpetrate war crimes by participating in the battle for Mosul. In reality these fighters proved singularly incompetent at urban fighting, and the Hashd has little interest in Mosul. These proxy militias instead were granted exactly what they wanted: Responsibility for rural areas to the west. Thus, while only having to flush a few Daesh hangers-on from remote desert villages, these paramilitaries were gifted the real prize — control of the Syria border zone.
Meanwhile, Al-Amiri and Iranian senior military officer Qassem Soleimani coerced the Iraqi Army into completely surrounding Mosul to block Daesh’s escape route. The result was catastrophic losses by Iraq’s best regiments in the fighting and the almost complete destruction of Mosul and its population.
We are now entering the endgame as Hashd militants retake Iraq’s border areas, combined with a renewed push by paramilitaries from the Syrian side. Soleimani this month directed his forces to focus on central Syria, after northern routes were headed off by pro-US forces preparing to push Daesh out of Raqqa.
Just as Israel in 1947 plunged a dagger into the Arab nation-building project, today Tehran’s efforts threaten to annihilate three Arab states.
Soleimani must therefore have been gnashing his teeth earlier this month, when these militia forces were bombed by US planes as they tried to advance toward Tanf in southeast Syria. Are we seeing the outlines of a US-Arab strategy to block Iranian aspirations for a corridor through Syria, or should we take US military statements at face value that this was a one-off operation?
Sunni populations have been expelled from towns west of Damascus, while impoverished Iraqis are bussed-in to engineer a population conducive to Iranian hegemony. One route to the sea passes through regime-held Latakia. Massive ongoing construction projects in Lebanon are also linking Hezbollah strongholds of Beqaa, south Beirut and the south.
Skeptics question why Iran even needs these routes when control of Iraq’s skies allows it to fly billions of dollars-worth of arms to its allies. One reason is that these proxies are victims of their own success, as their aggressive actions are precipitating the disintegration of Iraq. When Iraq relapses into conflict, the strategic priority of Tehran’s allies will be to expand this belt of territory, while consolidating Baghdad and the Shiite south.
Just as Israel in the 1940s plunged a dagger into the Arab nation-building project, today Iran’s efforts threaten to annihilate three Arab states. Nobody can put Syria back together again and direct Iranian access to Lebanon means that Hezbollah can go from being a “state-within-a-state” to becoming the state.
A window of opportunity remains for Iraq, with possibilities including: Preventing paramilitary participation in elections; enhancing the role of Arab states; enforcing militia demobilization; and cultivating an inclusive political system in Baghdad. The vacuum created by the eradication of Daesh should not be occupied by Iran.
Although at each opportunity the Iranian electorate votes in droves for the most moderate shade of hard-liner on the ballot paper, the result for Tehran’s confrontational policies is negligible. Iran’s leadership has been prone to hyperbolic boasts about capturing Arab capitals and “exporting the revolution” to Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. Will we soon be hearing these demonic figures gloating about the far-flung extent of their new empire as proxy militias finalize their operations?
Seventy years on from its foundation, Israel only grows more dominant and more hostile to Arab interests. In another 70 years’ time, will our offspring be cursing our missed opportunity to prevent Persian vultures from stripping a 1,000 km swathe of territory from the carcass of the Arab world?
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.