Iran’s ‘land corridors’ to Syria heighten prospect of war with Israel
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.