It turns out these predictions were wrong. Tehran would not be satisfied with just a foothold — today their proxies have seized almost the entire Iraq-Syria border zone, toward Turkey in the north and adjoining the Sunni province of Anbar to the south. All those worst-case scenario predictions failed to grasp the bigger picture of Tehran’s brazenly ambitious objectives.
Iran’s big opportunity came within the context of recent operations to retake vast swaths of land that had been in Kurdish hands since 2014. I discussed these developments in my article last week; detailing how Kurdish forces had been coerced into withdrawing by a mixture of threats and inducements personally delivered by Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Western politicians told us not to worry, everything was under control and would return to normal once these readjustments had been consolidated. However, Tehran and their affiliates had other ideas.
First there was a rapid military push to Makhmour, almost at the gates of the Kurdish capital of Irbil, which halted only after clashes between the two sides.
Of arguably greater geostrategic importance were a further series of operations, led by Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi units, capturing territory all along the Iraq-Syria border. These same units in May 2017 first recaptured a stretch of the Syrian border west of Mosul. However, in past days several Hashd divisions moved south toward Al-Qaim and north toward Faysh Khabur (where the Iraq, Syrian and Turkish borders meet) amid reports of fierce fighting between Hashd forces and the peshmerga. The Hashd divisions involved include Badr, the Imam Ali Brigades and Hezbollah Al-Nujaba – that is, those forces most closely beholden to Tehran. The presence of Hashd leaders Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and Hadi Al-Amiri indicate the importance of these operations.
What emboldened Iran to make these immense strategic gains? Let’s forget about moral rights and wrongs; what matters to Tehran is what it can get away with in aggrandizing its regional posture. Tehran has concluded that the world is unwilling and unable to restrict its freedom of maneuver. Is Iran correct?
When we hear of atrocities by the Myanmar army against the Rohingya, fleeing children drowning or dying of starvation and thousands of women subjected to gang-rape; when we see Vladimir Putin meddling with impunity in Western elections; when we see an abandonment of even the pretense of a serious international process to address crises in Syria, Libya and Yemen – we perceive a global system of “Might is Right” that has long since lost its moral compass in enforcing international justice.
This was brought home to me during recent days in the US. From inside the Washington media bubble it can feel as if the outside world has ceased to exist. The liberal US media appears ill-equipped to handle any news story that doesn’t involve feigning outrage at Donald Trump’s absurd tweets. I wouldn’t want to trivialize the shocking Harvey Weinstein scandal, but is it inopportune to inquire whether anything else is going on in the world?
Americans across the political spectrum appear so consumed with their shattered and polarized national identity that they struggle to pay attention to complex international developments. The White House is obsessed with self-generated crises and own goals, dominated by a president who, if he were suddenly minded to lash out at Tehran and Pyongyang, might struggle to find them on a map.
Trump’s foreign policy guru Rex Tillerson, during his recent jaunt around the region, called for foreign forces in Iraq to go home - indicating his ignorance that Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi is made up of Iraqis. European nations appear similarly disengaged. Britain, for example, has veered from grand delusions about its massive global importance under Tony Blair’s hubris to a mania of Brexit-driven introversion under its current political nonentities.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi had been seen as a moderate bastion against Iranian influence. Tehran cleverly made Abadi the figurehead for the operations against the Kurds – with senior Iranian politicians cynically lauding Al-Abadi as the strongman who saved Iraq. When Al-Abadi visited Riyadh a few days ago, he made sure to turn up in Tehran immediately after. When Tillerson denounced the Hashd and referred to Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis as a terrorist, Iraqi statements condemning Tillerson were put in Al-Abadi’s name. This could be interpreted as a Machiavellian attempt to exploit these developments to co-opt moderate Shiite politicians ahead of elections next year. Indeed these elections promise to be a show of force between relative moderates and sectarian factions aligned with Tehran. The winner of this contest will dominate the government at a crucial moment for defining Iraq’s identity. In the past we could have expected to see substantive Western efforts to empower non-sectarian entities – but the world is not paying attention.
Tehran’s gambit for capturing the entire Syria-Iraq border zone fulfils several goals. It sets pro-Iran forces up for recapturing eastern Syria, while opening up a choice of land routes from Tehran to Damascus, Beirut and the Mediterranean for unrestricted transport of military hardware.
Iran is obsessed with access to strategic choke-points: Hormuz, Mandib, the eastern Mediterranean and key routes through Iraq. Routes between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan have been a vital supply route important in the fight against Daesh. US allies will find their transport options are limited if Iran dominates this border, control of which the Revolutionary Guards will profit from for smuggling and weapons proliferation.
Iran and Turkey have a shared interest in stifling Kurdish autonomy and joint Kurdish action. Turkey and Iran may be pleased to see Syrian and Iraqi Kurds isolated from one another. Although Turkey is certainly chastened by Iran’s recent strategic gains, these nations usually avoid unnecessarily antagonizing each other. Washington meanwhile neither knows nor cares that it spent two decades cultivating the Kurds as a strategic ally – before thoughtlessly abandoning them to abject humiliation at Iran’s hands.
What has emboldened Tehran to make these strategic gains? It has concluded that the world is unwilling and unable to stop it.
Few outsiders will have heard of the Iraqi town of Tuz Khurmatu, but it is a key junction between Iran, Kurdish areas and central Iraq. There have been bouts of factional bloodletting there since 2014, particularly between Hashd forces and Kurds. In the past two weeks Hashd fighters unleashed a particularly brutal vengeance against citizens, as documented by Amnesty International, with thousands of Kurds forced to flee as their homes went up in smoke behind them. Hashd human-rights violations habitually serve strategic goals, and in this case Tuz is a valuable prize for exerting control across the region. Yet the world barely noticed.
One state that is watching very carefully, of course, is Israel, meaning that each bout of Iranian expansionism brings us closer to an inevitable regional conflict, which would be devastating for citizens of states such as Lebanon and Syria – even if it didn’t significantly weaken the two principal protagonists. That is because Israel prefers to carpet-bomb enemies and civilian targets from a distance, while cowardly Iran fights its battles through mercenaries and proxies.
One doesn’t have to be a fortune-teller to realise that recent events will define patterns of conflicts and tensions for decades to come. Analysts will look back at these events with far greater attention than self-proclaimed experts are currently doing, and wonder why the international community failed to lift a finger.
American liberals deride Trump’s foreign policy incompetence and worry that his belligerent language toward Iran is setting us on the path for conflict. On the contrary, it is this vacuous rhetoric in the absence of coherent policy – or even elementary-level understanding of these developments – that is emboldening bully states such as Iran, North Korea and Putin’s Russia to walk all over us and redefine the global balance of power for decades to come.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.