Tehran’s March Towards Regional Dominance Must Be Stopped
by Hanin Ghaddar*
This month marks three years since the formation of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) or Al- Hashd a-Shaabi. The occasion was celebrated with the highlighted presence of the Iranian ambassador to Iraq – who was also Qassem Soleimani’s advisor – as a sign to show that Iran, via its Revolutionary Guards Corps, is the real leader of the Shiite militias in Iraq, not the Iraqi government and certainly not its military institutions.
Under the pretext of fighting ISIS, the IRGC commands sixty seven Shiite militias in Iraq alone, thereby controlling vast areas of Iraq. The Iraqi government has lost its influence on these areas and will lose more when the battle against ISIS in Mosul is over and when the Shiite militias take over. But what is more daunting is Iran’s plan to integrate these militias in the state institutions by utilizing their victory to run for the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Accordingly, these militias are on the way to form an Iraqi Hezbollah model, which will allow Iran to creep into and then take over Iraq’s state institutions. With Hezbollah in Lebanon, PMUs in Iraq, and Iran-controlled land bridge in Syria – not to forget the newly formed Syrian Hezbollah – Iran would be the super power in the three countries, having the final say in the three states’ decisions, and in control of a land bridge that stretches from Iran to the South of Lebanon via Syria.
Shiite militias in Iraq – led by Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force – are approaching the frontier in an attempt to meet up with pro-Assad forces. They have repeatedly declared that they intend to cross the border in order to “support the fight against ISIS.”
According to a recent The Guardian report, Shiite militias who have fought ISIS inside Iraq have set up bases in freed ISIS territories. But it seems that Ba’aj (West of Mosul and close to the Syrian border), is “now a foundation point of an Iranian plan to secure ground routes across Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon, cementing its influence over lands its proxies have conquered.” The plan is to cross into Syria through the city of Deir Azzour and town of Mayedin, which explains why all Iranian-led forces in both Iraq and Syria are geared up to the battle of Deir Ezzour. A path through Deir Ezzour, Mayedin and Palmyra and then on toward Damascus is, for now, a preferred option, a PMU leader told The Guardian.
Meanwhile in Syria, some Iraqi, Pakistani and Afghan militias are fighting under Hezbollah’s leadership to also reach the border and meet up with their Iraqi counterparts, thereby establishing a border link and finalizing the land bridge from Iran to Lebanon and the Mediterranean.
As Tanf border turned out to be a redline for the US and its backed troops – drawn by multiple US strikes against Iran-backed militias around Tanf – Shiite militias in Syria went around the Zakf base, encircling the US bases and the US-backed rebels, and cutting them off from advancing to ISIS-held territories, mainly Deir Ezzour – Iran’s main target.
In addition to the operations around Tanf and Zakf, Iran’s militias are advancing from Palmyra to Al-Sakhna near Tadmur, on the way to Deir Ezzour. With Iran’s militias approaching from that area in Syria, and from Baaj in Iraq, it seems that Mayedin and Deir Ezzour – rich in oil and gas fields – is the most strategic target for Iran. Not only does it allow them to take over ISIS territories and declare a symbolic victory, but it also provides access to a large part of the Syrian-Iraqi border.
The pace of Iran’s Shiite militias in both Iraq and Syria is very fast and overwhelming, while the strategy developing process in Washington is taking more time than expected. The priority is still to contain Iran in Iraq and Syria, while fighting ISIS, but it is still not clear how. This means that by the time a policy is developed, or by the time it is implemented, Iran will be at the final stages of its plan.
The PMUs are already getting ready for the elections. Assad is more confident than ever about his status at the presidential palace. Lebanon is already governed by Hezbollah, which takes every important decision on behalf of the government. Very soon, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon will be mostly ruled by the Persian Empire, leaving the three states vulnerable to more disintegration and fragmentation.
On the social level, the Iranian increased power in Iraq and Syria – based on severe and aggressive demographical changes done by PMUs and Hezbollah – will be open to raised sectarian tensions. Iran will be holding a stretch of empowered Shiites all the way from Tehran to Beirut, but it will also be surrounded by a sea of angry Sunnis, feeling abandoned and desperate for revenge, and will easily vulnerable to an ISIS version 2.0 that will come out after this version is weakened.
Failing to contain Iran in Iraq and Syria means that defeating ISIS will be impossible. To defeat ISIS you have to eliminate its justification, and the reason why it would sounds attractive to young Sunnis. Iran’s power in the region will only make ISIS – or the next version of it – more appealing, or maybe the only option to fight Iran’s militias.
On the economic level, Iraq and Syria, including the ISIS-held territories, are rich with oil and gas fields, phosphate fields, and many opportunities to invest and make money. Iran and Hezbollah have already started investing in Iraq via former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, but media reports and sources talk about increased major investments through Shiite businessmen, making Iraq not only politically vital, but economically viable as well.
Qassem Soleimani’s army will control an economically rewarding empire that makes any economic difficulties in Tehran – caused by sanctions or otherwise – less effective. Hence, the IRGC’s power and capacities will increase significantly, allowing them to be more independent from any of these three states’ economies, and in control of their resources.
Iran is moving very fast to achieve this goal, and no one seems to be stopping it. All military strikes against Iran’s militias in Syria have been reactions but not based on any policy. And Iran understands the game and is testing it as they go, until the objective is achieved.
Therefore, containing Iran’s hegemony in the region is no longer an option; it has become an urgent necessity if the objective is to stabilize the conflict and protect the region from further sectarian tension. Any more time wasted is a win for Iran.
*Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy