First Published: 2017-09-11

Iran’s ‘land corridors’ to Syria heighten prospect of war with Israel
'If Iran and Hezbollah were to expand their military presence near the Israel-controlled Golan Heights, Tel Aviv might come to the conclusion that it has no choice but to attack Hezbollah,' Randa Slim, director of the Track II Dialogues Initiative.
Middle East Online

By Ed Blanche - BEIRUT

Israeli soldiers manoeuvre a tank during military exercise

Israeli warplanes were report­ed to have attacked a heav­ily guarded Syrian Army base near the central city of Hama as Israel staged its largest all-arms military exercise in 20 years. The operation has been portrayed as a dress rehearsal for crushing Hezbollah, Syria’s key ally.

The pre-dawn air strike Septem­ber 7 on the Syrian Scientific Stud­ies and Research Centre at Masyaf, which has been closely linked to Syria’s chemical weapons pro­gramme, marked a significant es­calation in Israel’s aerial campaign against Syria. Since 2012, there have been nearly 100 raids, outgo­ing Israeli Air Force commander Major-General Amir Eshel said.

The military action reflects Is­rael’s alarm at Iran’s growing mili­tary presence in Syria to support the regime of President Bashar As­sad, especially Tehran’s strategy of building a land corridor, possibly two, across Iraq to Syria, putting Iranian forces on Israel’s volatile northern border.

“The ultimate purpose of the corridors… is to expand Iran’s reach into the Golan Heights, with the goal of tightening the noose around Israel,” observed Ehud Yaari, a leading Israeli commenta­tor on Middle East affairs, in a May 1 article for Foreign Affairs. That’s an eventuality Israel cannot ac­cept.

The September 7 raids follow in­creasingly hostile threats against Syria and Iran and a greatly ex­panded Hezbollah by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and senior generals dismayed at the Is­lamic Republic’s swelling power in the heart of the Arab world.

This is dramatically changing the region’s military and geopo­litical landscapes and heightening the prospect of, at the very least, another war with Hezbollah that promises to be the most destruc­tive of their 35-year conflict.

Because of the Syria war, Hez­bollah has increased its military forces to an estimated 20,000 first-line fighters, ten times the number it fielded during its guerrilla war to end Israel’s occupation of South Lebanonl in May 2000, with an ex­panded reserves of at least 10,000.

“If Iran and Hezbollah were to expand their military presence near the Israel-controlled Golan Heights, Tel Aviv might come to the conclusion that it has no choice but to attack Hezbollah forces posi­tioned there,” analyst Randa Slim, director of the Track II Dialogues Initiative at the Middle East Insti­tute, noted in a post on the Cipher Brief website.

American strategists are con­cerned that, with the possible end of the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, Teh­ran could deploy its Shia militias across the region. This move to enforce Iranian rule would be part of what US analysts Michael Eisen­stadt and Michael Knights, Iraq specialists with Washington Insti­tute for Near East Policy, call “Ira­nian efforts to remake parts of the region in its own image.”

The land-bridge concept is largely the brainchild of Major- General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which spearheads Iran’s expansionist adventures. He also is responsible for execut­ing the Iranian strategy of wresting control of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, key links in securing the planned corridor from the Islamic Republic to the Mediterranean.

Control of this swathe of largely Sunni territory by Iran, the world’s only Shia power, has far wider and longer term geopolitical sig­nificance across the region and be­yond that alarms the United States, Israel and the Arab monarchies of the Arabian Gulf.

“The bloody quagmire involv­ing (Syria, Iraq and Lebanon) offers more opportunities to consolidate power than what would surely be a riskier confrontation in the Gulf, where Iran would have to contend with the United States and its al­lies,” observed Yaari in the Foreign Affairs article.

“Success in the narrower ap­proach, moreover, could ulti­mately strengthen Tehran’s hand against Saudi Arabia and those in the Sunni bloc.”

Israel, like the Gulf monarchies, which see themselves most at risk from Iran’s territorial ambitions, finds the US failure to confront Iran’s expansionist ambitions per­plexing — and dangerous.

“The Iranians publicly express their keen interest in opening up the Golan Heights to their proxies, and high-ranking IRGC officers are engaged there now in the estab­lishment of a new militia — the Go­lan Regiment,” Yaari observed.

Iran’s Arab adversaries, led by Saudi Arabia, are aghast at the US reluctance to curb what they see as the emergence of a new empire by their historic foes, the Persians, sharpening the 1,300-year-old Sunni-Shia rift at a time when the heavily armed Sunnis are in disar­ray and dismayed at US dithering.

The US focus on eradicating ISIS — at least militarily — is a source of intense frustration by Washing­ton’s traditional Arab — read Sunni — allies. As the Iranian juggernaut locks up Iraq and Syria, and with Hezbollah not only the most pow­erful armed force in divided Leba­non but increasingly dominant in government, a long-calculated takeover is almost complete.

Indeed, with the Gulf Coopera­tion Council (GCC) threatened with break-up over a worsening quarrel between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Iran seems to be the only power in the region that has a coherent strategy — plus the firepower to back it up.

For this, it has created a veritable foreign legion of Shia fighters from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan who are the spearhead of Iran’s formidable military presence in Syria.

US military historian Max Boot observed in a September 5 report for Foreign Policy that US Army Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend, commander of US op­erations in Syria and Iraq, told him during a recent inspection tour of the Middle East flashpoints by General Joseph Votel, who heads the US Central Command, that “he had no mandate to stop the growth of Iranian influence.”

Boot, who accompanied Vogel on the tour, added: “My fear is that US success in defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) will simply open up more space for Iran to dominate — and that in turn will lead to the rise of ISIS 2.0.”

Iran’s strategists, who take a more long-term view of the re­gion than the Americans as they struggle to disengage themselves from the Middle East’s ancient and bewilderingly complex rival­ries, some thousands of years old, constantly outfox and stymie the Washington establishment.

Yaari and supposedly others in Israel’s strategic fraternity say Iran seeks two land corridors from the Islamic Republic to the Mediterra­nean, dramatically expanding Teh­ran’s reach and giving it a strategic maritime alternative to the Gulf.

That would enhance its econom­ic as well as its military capabilities and essentially give it a regional superpower status able to domi­nate the global trade routes in the Arabian and Mediterranean seas, with Iran firmly in control of much of Syria, including the border with Israel and increasingly vulnerable Jordan.

With impulsive US President Donald Trump possibly shackled by Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran for years to come, the Americans, it seems, are pow­erless to curb Iranian ambitions at a time when Tehran is driving to modernise its largely obsolete mili­tary — ironically, with funds made available by the nuclear deal.

“For the last three years (Soleim­ani) has been kept busy setting up the building blocks for at least one, but more likely two, land corridors across the Levant (one in the north and one in the south), linking Iran to the Mediterranean…,” Yaari wrote.

“The idea… would be to out­source the supervision of the cor­ridors to proxy forces, such as Hez­bollah and the various Shia militias Iran sponsors in Iraq and Syria to avoid using its own military to control the routes. Iran has a long-standing aversion towards invest­ing manpower abroad.”

Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

 

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