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Iranian expansion of air and naval bases in Syria is a threat to all

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has taken advantage of recent cease-fire talks to further consolidate and expand its presence in Syria. While some Western diplomats have hailed limited and localized cease-fires in Syria as an important stepping stone to halting the violence, it is clear that the Iranians have other plans in mind.

The cease-fire is holding in most of the heaviest-hit areas in southwest Syria, but not all. The Iranian regime is desperate for a respite from having to engage on multiple front lines in Syria, as the IRGC and Assad’s Shiite militant proxies suffer a significant toll in casualties — forcing them to rely increasingly upon hapless Afghan Hazara foreign fighters. Referred to in various reports as “cannon fodder,” the Afghan Shiite militias known as the “Fatemiyoun Brigade” are just one pillar in IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani’s grand plan in Syria.

Soleimani has recognized that IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah forces — which comprise on behalf of the Assad regime the overwhelming bulk of the field commanders and front-line troops — are at the forefront of the heaviest fighting against opposition forces. Assad regime loyalist militias tend to be relegated to checkpoint duty or to moving into areas only after they have been captured by the Iranian and Hezbollah fighters.

Reports recently arose that detailed a much more long-term Iranian military plan to establish air bases and even a naval base in Syria. Qassem Soleimani will ostensibly claim that such bases will be required to defend against “terrorism,” while in reality they will serve to cement Iran’s hegemony over the Syrian people. Just as alarming, these military bases will offer Iran an exponential increase in its military reach and ability to project both unconventional and conventional weapons throughout the region in its entirety.

If this beachhead of Iranian aggression is not stopped now, it may be impossible to roll it back in the future.

Oubai Shahbandar

IRGC air bases could be used to mask medium-range ballistic missile-production facilities, weapons that could reach every major city in the Middle East, from Jerusalem to Jeddah. A naval port in Syria will be used to further expand the IRGC’s smuggling by sea of weapons to its Shiite militant proxies. With the land route through Iraq and into Syria near completion, Soleimani will now have the capability to arm, train, and indoctrinate a crescent of Shiite extremists by land, air, and sea.

If this beachhead of Iranian aggression is not stopped now, it may be impossible to roll it back in the future. Imagine a constellation of IRGC-controlled air bases and ports that stretches from the Arabian Gulf to Iraq to the Bab Al-Mandab Strait off Yemen, to the Golan Heights and into Syria’s mediterranean coast. This nightmare scenario will fuel a global terrorism that would make Daesh look like amateurs.

The solution? It will not be easy. But allowing Iran to consolidate along the Golan and southern Syria while it builds air bases and ports to serve its nefarious aims in Syria is a national security threat to every state in the region that opposes the supreme leader’s radical vision.

If there was any question of what the IRGC would do with the recent cash windfall it gained as a result of the Qatari ransom payout, on top of Obama’s concessions in Geneva, this is the resounding answer: The IRGC is preparing facilities to sow even more chaos and destruction. 

Containment, in this case, is simply insufficient. Iran’s latest moves in Syria deserve more alacrity in action among Western allies and the Arab coalition. As Daesh’s remnants face their inevitable defeat, Iran’s Islamic Republic is setting the stage for a second chapter in Syria’s ongoing saga — one that could very well lead to a frighteningly wider and more destructive regional war.

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