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Tehran’s road to Damascus

Iran-backed militias reached a new milestone this week, managing to advance to the Iraq-Syria border. Rudaw, the main media outlet of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said of this development: “The Hashd (Shiite militia) could soon resemble the Iraqi version of Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran.”

Iraqi Kurdish commanders are reportedly seriously concerned that the increased concentration of Iran-backed militias south of the Sinjar area in the northwest Iraqi desert will one day lead to clashes with Kurdish forces.

Pictures have emerged of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC, and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, a convicted international terrorist and senior Iraqi Shiite militia commander, on the Iraq-Syria border, apparently smiling at their latest conquest.

Geographically, the Sinjar area south of Mosul is strategically important, and has been used by extremist groups to transit from Syria into Iraq since 2005, when the Assad regime gave Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s foreign fighters free rein. Capturing and holding this area also enables Iran to establish a landlocked route into Deir Ezzor province as pro-Damascus militias launch a campaign to capture the remaining eastern Syrian badia (countryside) beyond its control.

Concurrently, Sunni rebels are engaged in an ongoing campaign against Iran-backed militias in the eastern Syrian badia. There are indications that the US continues to provide military support to these rebel forces, who are also fighting Daesh. There is now a race to see who can control the Iraq-Syria border area once Daesh is defeated. Iran and its proxies are desperate to get there first.

The prize that is up for grabs is major. If Iran succeeds in establishing an uninterrupted land corridor through Iraq into Syria and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley controlled by Hezbollah, it would have scored a major military and strategic coup. It would allow Iran to supply its Shiite extremist proxies throughout the region with more weaponry, faster, and with less chance of military interdiction by outside powers.

Fabrice Balanche, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote earlier this week: “The Syrian regime (is) racing to establish an east-west ‘Shia axis’ from Iran to Lebanon.” A major impediment to Iran’s grand plan is the Amman-Baghdad highway, which is not currently under the control of Iranian militias. Baghdad has awarded a contract to a US firm to provide security and refurbish this route.

Preventing Iran-sponsored extremists from establishing a beachhead in eastern Syria and western Iraq, from which the IRGC could launch attacks against coalition forces and move advanced weapons, will be difficult but not impossible.

Oubai Shahbandar

This has infuriated Iran’s agents in Iraq. Securing, refurbishing, and maintaining sovereign control of the highway is in the economic interests of the Jordanian and Iraqi peoples, but not in the interests of the IRGC’s long-term plans.

Hadi Al-Ameri, the nominal commander of the Badr Corps and Hashd militias, took the opportunity this week to threaten the US military that his forces would prevent any effort to control the Iraq-Syria border. The irony is that Al-Ameri’s militias once benefited greatly from US military equipment that was pilfered from the central government in Baghdad.

There are already approximately 2,000 Iraqi Shiite militants fighting in Syria. If they manage to link with their fellow extremists on the other side of the border, it will present a threat to regional security on a par with Daesh and Al-Qaeda.

Preventing Iran-sponsored extremists from establishing a beachhead in eastern Syria and western Iraq, from which the IRGC could launch attacks against coalition forces and move advanced weapons, will be difficult but not impossible.

Iran backed down in May when confronted with American firepower in response to Shiite militants trying to advance on the US Special Forces base in Al-Tanf along the Jordan-Syria-Iraq border area. Determined resolve and military deterrence can work in stopping the IRGC from finalizing the last section of its crescent of control across the region.

Now is the time to use the momentum following the Riyadh Summit and closer US-Arab and Islamic Coalition strategic bonds to help the local forces in eastern Syria and western Iraq making a last stand against Iran’s long march to the Mediterranean.

• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.