Friday, August 11, 2017

A closer look at the Tehran's "land bridge" to the Mediterranean

Fear that Iran is working to build a “land bridge” to the Mediterranean -- as a path to regional hegemony -- appears to be spreading among policy circles, and may have even influenced some U.S. military actions in eastern Syria.

Allowing unsubstantiated suspicion to drive strategy is dangerous business. It could drag America into an unpredictable armed escalation with Iran and Assad in eastern Syria on top of an already complicated war against ISIS.

The speculation about this so called land bridge/corridor linking Tehran to Beirut, driven in my opinion by the fears of stakeholders in the Middle East, started after Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias created a role for themselves in the campaign against ISIS in Mosul, pursuing control of small towns in the desert south and west of the city. They made gains since October: they surrounded the ISIS-held town of Tal Afar and captured its airport, took a number of small nearby towns and villages, cut ISIS lines west of Mosul and advanced south along the Iraq-Syria border.

Despite the fact that nobody has articulated how exactly this perceived Iranian scheme would work, the speculation continued to grow and spread that it became a routine part of conversations I’ve had with a fellow analyst or middle east observer in the past year.

I have several reasons to think that there is no deliberate Iranian plan to establish this “land bridge”, and that this sort of passage is not a strategic objective for Iran in and of itself.

First, Iran already sends fighters and supplies to Syria and Hezbollah on a significant scale. Would it make a strategic difference if Iran helped Hezbollah amass an arsenal of 190 thousand rockets instead of 150 thousand? Improving Iran’s transportation logistics through Syria to Lebanon isn’t a compelling motive.

Second, a land corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean--the Baghdad-Damascus highway-- existed from 2003 until almost 2013, until ISIS cut the link. It was not a game-changer then. What would make it so now?

Third, a new corridor would pass hundreds of miles through Iraq under the watch of the U.S. military, Sunni tribes, ISIS sleeper cells, and former insurgents. It could hardly be safer or more convenient than current air or sea alternatives.

There are several more-likely explanations for recent steps by Iran-affiliate militias in Iraq.

First, the militias' push west of Mosul and toward the Syrian border was initiated after the US and Iraqi government blocked them from participating in the main push for Mosul. The militias needed a fight to remain relevant, and Tal Afar was the obvious exit ramp.

Second, the militias may be working to establish a strong presence in the desert around Mosul to prevent ISIS remnants from regrouping. That area was a staging ground for ISIS before Mosul’s fall in June 2014. So much so, it earned the nickname “Tora Bora” by the dispirited Iraqi security and oil crews struggling to defend and repair the nearby and strategic Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline.

Further, Iran may be trying to establish a base in an area abutting the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to apply pressure on the KRG and prevent it from incorporating these territories into a future independent Kurdistan.

An outpost west of Mosul can also enable Iran to support the nearby Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)-affiliated Syrian Kurds who are under threat from Iran’s-rival Turkey. Ironically, these are the same Syrian Kurds the U.S. considers allies.

Moreover, an Iranian outpost there would counterbalance Turkish military presence in Baeshiqa to the north of Mosul. It would allow Iran to have a say in Mosul’s future, perhaps to deter a push for autonomy by Sunni politicians backed by Turkey and Gulf Arab states.

Finally, if Iran can claim some credit for helping Iraq and Syria defeat ISIS and reclaim control over their borders, it could improve Iran’s, and its proxies’, image in the region.

These points perhaps offer a more realistic breakdown of Iran's intentions than the vague notion of a land bridge. Some of those objectives are malign for sure, but I wouldn’t panic about the rise of a radical empire yet. Even if securing a route from Iran to Syria was among Iran’s desires, such a route existed before today. It would be a manageable geographic nuisance the U.S. and regional allies could learn to mitigate.