Saturday, June 17, 2017

Iran's goal in Iraq and Syria? A highway to Lebanon.

An Iranian militiaman firing a cannon against ISIS targets in the Iraqi town of Ba'aj. Reuters.

Iran war plans in Syria and Iraq include a highway that would like up Iran with Lebanon. The Guardian. Iranian backed militias are advancing in both Syria and Iraq in an effort to link up and construct a major highway that would give Iran ground access to Lebanon. They have already taken the city of al-Ba'aj in Iraq to further this goal and construction has begun on the road. Much work is yet to be done as ISIS still controls the two final hubs for the highway, Deir ez Zor and Mayedin in Syria. This effort has led to conflict with US backed forces in Syria who are also trying to advance to the two cities in the hub. Near the site of those clashes, between al-Tanf and Deir ez Zor, forces of the Syrian militias met up with the Iranian forces from Iraq. The connection between the forces is a major new step in the war, and one that will have consequences for the future. 

My Comment:
This is Iran's major power play in the region, and I am surprised at myself that I didn't realize it until now. Creating this land route between Tehran and Beirut must have been a major goal for the Iranians for the entire war and I just didn't realize it until now. And it looks like they are almost successful. It should have been obvious though. Logistics wins war and this looks like a very good way for Iran to shore up their logistics in the region. 

From what it looks like now it seems that Iran already has a potential route between its borders and Lebanon. It's a longer route but it seems as though using Iraqi Highway 1 all the way to the Syrian border and then following Syrian Highway 2 they could almost get to Damsacus. The main problem seems to be the rebels control much of the area by the al-Tanf crossing, and those rebels have US support. 

This explains why the Iranian militias are harassing US backed forces in the area. Their goal is to drive them out of the border area so they can link up both their forces and then move up Mayedin and Deir ez Zor.  By doing so they could potentially open up the longer southern route and get closer to accomplishing their larger goal of opening up the northern route that runs through those two cities. 

So what does Iran gain from this? In the short term they throw a massive monkey wrench into US plans in the region. Our plan was to drive from the north using the same areas that these Shiite militias now occupy. If Iran can block our forces they can  get all the prestige and accolades that taking out ISIS's last remaining strongholds. Doing so would not only be a major punch in the gun to the United States, it would also humble Iran's Russian and Syrian allies in the region. It would make them an even more powerful player in the region if they were the ones that finally took out ISIS, and, even more so, managed to keep America from accomplishing that goal. Letting Iran, or their proxies, be the ones to defeat the main stronghold of ISIS would be a huge loss of face for the United States.

Having a land route, either the northern one or southern one would also have an obvious impact on logistics. Right now Iran is forced to either fly their weapons and reinforcements, or use ships. Having a highway would mean they could move supplies and troops over land with trucks, which would be more efficient than air travel and quicker than by sea. This would allow them to make an immediate impact on the war against ISIS and al-Nusra in Syria.  

Long term though I feel this highway is more a threat to Israel than anything else. By creating controlled and safe highway between Iran and Lebanon, Iran can send weapons, money and support to the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon. They could even deploy heavier weapons in the region as well. This highway, if allowed to completion, could represent a dagger aimed at the throat of Israel, especially if Iran wanted to deploy WMD's. 

So what do we do about this? My guess is that the three minor skirmishes between our rebel groups and the Iranian backed militias will likely be the beginning. We probably won't allow Iran to have the southern route to reinforce and resupply their forces. Longer term we will likely have to push very hard with the Kurds in the North and the rebels in the South to capture, at the very least, Mayedin. If we were to hold onto al-Tanf in the south and Mayedin in the North, we would completely destroy Iran's plans here. Everywhere else would have to either go through us or the Kurds, who aren't likely to cooperate with the Shiite militias since they are mostly Sunni Muslims.

The question is if we will have to will to do so. Driving to Mayedin and, even worse, Deir ez Zor, would involve attacking these militia groups. Doing so might enrage the Syrians who have only survived because the fact that Iran is backing them, especially if we move on Deir ez Zor which is partially held by Syria. It could also potentially anger the Russians who have their own goals in the region. It will be interesting, to say the least, to find out what our leadership decides to do... 

If we decide to do nothing, then perhaps the Israelis will do something themselves. Though they have no easy way to deploy troops, they could potentially violate Syrian air space to bomb these highways if and when they got built/captured. Doing so would be a major escalation but I don't think they will tolerate the increase of threat and influence this project represents... 

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