Local armed groups allied with Iran have proven the country’s ability to confront the opponents of the Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. They also confirmed that they will continue the implementation of Iranian policies on the long term.
It is now certain that these local groups have become parallel entities to the military institutions, so they ensure a wider Iranian influence in the above mentioned countries in the future.
The announced Iranian project that aims at controlling the region extending from Iran’s western border to the Mediterranean coasts has achieved more progress after forming an international coalition, following the events of Mossul in 2014.
Back then, Iran had control over one land crossing through Iraq, which extended to the al-Waleed crossing (opposite to the Syrian crossing of al-Tanf). That crossing was used by Iran between 2011 and 2013, but after the defeat of ISIS in mid-November 2017, Iran took control over three land crossing in the cities of Anbar and Ninawa.
Since the success of Khomeini’s revolution in 1979, the Iranian ambition to reach the coasts of Mediterranean was not a secret, as its decision makers admitted supporting Shiite armed groups, representing Shiite armies linked to the Iranian revolution in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Those groups are inspired by the thoughts and values of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, and they are formed by Shiite people of Arab origins in addition to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and some others.
Many Shiite armed groups are linked with the policy of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist which obliges them to defend Iran and fight for it in the event of any war against it, even if it is a military confrontation with the armies of their mother country. It is also linked to Iranian institutions, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which is considered a religious reference for a number of groups associated with him through a legal pledge. 41 militia factions have officially announced their legal pledge to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei out of more than 70, from which the Popular Mobilization Forces is formed.
Iran adopts a project that aims at imposing its regional influence over a Sunni region extending to the Mediterranean shores and Bab al-Mandab Strait, to guarantee its national security within a connected swath, through land crossings linking Iran with Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. These countries are controlled by parties affiliated with Iran.
In Iraq, Shiite powers control the political and security decision in the central government that conducts the security issues in cooperation with the PMU which was formed to fight IS after the events of Mosul 2014. The PMU is one of the forces affiliated with Iran in controlling Iraq.
In Syria, the government led by Bashar al-Assad reinforced the strategic alliance with Iran, which provided it with advisers, weapons and fighters to fight the armed opposition after 2011. Iran had played a crucial role in preventing the fall of Assad, as it mobilized dozens of armed Shiite groups to fight alongside Assad regime forces.
In Lebanon, the Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, holds most of the power and makes the strategic decisions of the state and the decision for peace and war. The group’s fighters had been secretly involved in fighting the armed Syrian opposition in Syria since the first days of the Syrian war, until its Secretary-General admitted his direct involvement in Syria in May 2013.
The most important reasons behind Iran’s support for the Shiite groups:
- Preserving the Iranian national security by fighting the Sunni factions opposing Iran
- Securing the strategic interests of Iran, and protecting the supreme Iranian interests by supporting the governments affiliated with Iran in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon
- Creating a balance in power between the countries that have interests in the region, like Turkey and the US, which favors the Iranian influence.
Border Crossings between Iran and Iraq, the Gateways
To achieve those Iranian goals, there must be local forces entrusted with it in the target countries. This requires the presence of local forces that are allied with popular armies that can ensure safe land corridors to provide support and secure the arrival of supplies from Iran to the countries in which these allied forces are present.
Geographically, the Iranian corridors are not too far, so they do not seem to impede the implementation of Iranian ambitions to reach the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The land distance between the Iranian border and the shores of the Mediterranean is less than 1,300 kilometers.
Iraq is linked by three official land ports with Iran: The Shalamjah port, 30 kilometers east of Basra city, opposite to the Shalamjah port in Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran, and Zurbatiyeh port in Wasit province, east of Iraq, opposite to Mehran port in the Iranian Ilam province. The third port is Al-Mundhriya port in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, opposite to Khosravi port in Kermanshah province in Iran.
The Iraqi capital, Baghdad, is located about 150 kilometers to the west of the Zurbatiya port in Wasit province on the border with Iran in eastern Iraq.
Baghdad is linked via Anbar to both Jordan and Syria by the “Highway One”, that passes through the city of Ramadi, the center of Anbar province, and the district Al-Rutbah, 300 kilometers west of Ramadi, where it then branches into two, the northern one that reaches the Al-Walid crossing, leading to the Syrian Al-Tanf crossing, and the southern branch, reaching the Trebil crossing to Jordan.
Al-Munthiriya crossing is located in the district of Khanaqin in Diyala province, at a distance of 100 kilometers from the city of Baquba, which is located less than 55 kilometers north-east of the capital, Baghdad. During the battles to recapture Tikrit in March 2015, the PMU created an 85-kilometer road linking the city of Khalis in Diyala province with the city of Samarra to secure the arrival of Iranian support, and facilitate geographical communication through Diyala between Iran one the one hand, and Syria and Lebanon on the other hand.
It is not clear yet, whether Iran will use the Shalamjah crossing to transport supplies to its allied forces in Syria and Lebanon through the southern cities, as the crossing is more than 550 km from the capital and the capital is less than 150 km from the crossings of Al-Mandhariyah and Zurbatiyah.
Diyala, in northeastern Iraq, is the most important starting point towards the three land crossings. The Syrian Al-Tanf corridor, which passes from Al-Khalis district to the city of Samarra, then to the cities of Anbar, Ramadi and Al-Rutba, to the Al-Walid crossing, opposite to the Al-Tanf crossing.
Iran will be able to transport supplies after reaching the city of Ramadi to the Albu Kamal crossing, via the other road between the cities of Ramadi and Al-Qaim along the Euphrates River. Iran could transfer supplies from Diyala province through the north of Salah al-Din province and west to the cities of Hatra and Al-Baaj, and then to the Syrian border.
Three Iranian crossings through Iraqi Territories
First crossing: Al-Waleed Iraqi crossing, opposite to the al-Tanf Syrian crossing
Following the start of the Arab Spring in late 2010, several Arab countries witnessed popular movements, aimed at changing the authoritarian regimes or military dictatorships to regimes based on the peaceful transfer of power through popular and democratic vote.
Since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011, Iran has guaranteed a land crossing to transport Shiite fighters and supplies through Anbar Province to its allies in Syria and Lebanon to fight the armed Syrian opposition. That crossing is the closest on land and costs the least in transferring supplies.
Iranian supply convoys cross a distance of more than 500 kilometers along Highway No. 1, connecting Baghdad with the Al-Waleed crossing on the Syrian border. The convoys pass on this road through Anbar for a distance of 410 km, through an uninhabited desert in which ISIS fighters were active before 2014.
However, Iran has stopped using this road since the return of ISIS fighters from their desert camps in early 2013, and taking control over most of the highway until the security forces alongside the PMU were able to recapture Al-Walid crossing opposite the Syrian Al-Tanf crossing on June 17, 2017.
Before the events of Mossul in 2014, the first crossing was considered as the only crossing linking Iran with the allies in Syria and Lebanon.
Iran is still unable to benefit from the first crossing, as the international coalition established a military base in Al-Tanf area and a camp for training moderate factions of the Free Syrian Army.
The first direct clash in the region took place on May 18, 2017, but this does not prevent Iran from benefiting from it in the crossing, if the international coalition dismantles its military base.
To counter Iranian strategies, in mid-August 2016, the coalition forces established a military base in the Syrian al-Tanf at the confluence of the borders with Iraq and Jordan. In June 2017, a new base was established in the Zakaf area, 70 kilometers northeast of al-Tanf to prevent the Assad regime forces from reaching the Iraqi borders; however, an agreement between Russia and the US led the US to withdraw from the camp and transfer the soldiers and equipment to the Al-Tanf base on September 19, 2017.
The areas of southern and eastern Syria, which are excluded from the de-escalation agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran, are among the most important regions, as they are geographically linked with Jordan and Israel in the south, Iraq, and Iran in the east. The importance of the first land crossing for Iran and Syria is as follows:
- To ensure that the land route remains clear for the flow of weapons and fighters from Iran through the Anbar desert to the allied powers
- To activate trade with Iran and Iraq, alleviating the effects of the deterioration of Syrian economy and the decline of the local currency against foreign currencies
Second Crossing: Al-Qaem crossing, opposite to Albukamal crossing in Syria
The forces that are allied with Iran on both sides facilitated the mission of the Assad-Iran alliance, where they controlled strategic areas before the arrival of the international coalition. The Assad-Iran alliance took control over Albukamal crossing with support of the Lebanese Hezbollah and factions belonging to the PMU. That happened, after the international coalition quitted from the battle of recapturing Albukamal, according to an agreement between Russia and the US that was struck on Sep. 19, 2017.
On the Iraqi side, forces belonging to the Popular Mobilization factions are deployed from the north of the Al-Waleed crossing to the south of the Al-Qaem border crossing, to protect Iraq from terrorism outside the borders.
In November 2017, the PMU factions took control over the Al-Qaem crossing and with the support of the Syrian forces, they took control over the whole city of Albukamal, which enabled it of controlling the roads that lead to Homs and the capital Damascus.
The second border crossing (Albukamal) is the first crossing retaken by the Syrian regime forces, out of three official crossings with Iraq, which are considered as the gateway from Iran through Iraqi territories.
By controlling this border crossing, Iran will avoid the passage through Al-Waleed crossing west of al-Anbar, opposite the Syrian crossing of al-Tanf, where the International Coalition established a military base.
It is also used to transport Iranian supplies to the Syrian border with Israel in the Syrian Golan, 70 kilometers southwest of the capital.
Iran might also use it to transfer goods between Syria and Iraq, to revive the trade between Syria and Iraq.
In future, this crossing will facilitate transferring the gas pipelines from Iran via Anbar to the Syrian coast, and then to the global markets.
Third Crossing: Rabeia Iraqi crossing, opposite to Al-Yarubiya Syrian crossing
The presence of the International Coalition in the base of al-Tanf prompted the Iranians to find other land routes in the areas controlled by the PMU, in the area of al-Baaj on the Syrian borders.
The temporary transit area in Al-Baaj represents the third land crossing from Iran to Syria and Lebanon. The location of Al-Baaj district is of great geographical importance because of its proximity to the Syrian border, 40 kilometers to the east.
The temporary land crossing in Al-Baaj area is a temporary alternative to the original route that extends from Talafar to the Iraqi Rabia crossing, 55 kilometers west of Talafar. Then from Talafar along the northern border with Turkey to Idlib and Homs in central Syria.
The choice of Al-Baaj area as a temporary crossing came as a result of international political pressure, that led to change the route of the PMU to the Al-Baaj area.
By the end of May 2017, leaders of the PMU announced that they had taken dozens of villages from ISIS and arrived to the Iraqi-Syrian border, where they control important swathes of the Iraqi-Syrian border strip in the Al-Baaj area towards the Al-Qaim border crossing to the south, at a distance of more than 220 kilometers.
The third land crossing starts from Iran through Diyala and then to the north of Salah al-Din in the Sharqat region, 90 kilometers south of Mosul, then to the west, less than 50 kilometers to Hatra in Nineveh, and from there about 100 kilometers westward to the city of Al-Baaj up to Syrian borders. These areas are mostly desert, including scattered villages with little population density, in contrast to the first and second land crossings.
Future threats for Iranian crossings
The Iranian crossings will remain unsafe until they will be cleared of ISIS activities, as ISIS small groups launch attacks in the provinces of Salah al-Deen, Nineveh and Anbar, from which the route of the three crossings passes, and they are routes for the Iranian supplies to Syria.
The Iranian crossings to the Mediterranean face a number of threats that make the traffic and transportation of supplies unsafe, the most important of which are:
- The route of the land crossings pass through a rugged desert or mountainous geography in Sunni areas, that are hostile to Iranian aspirations and where armed groups, such as ISIS, are active
- Those crossings might be monitored by Israel, which might target any supplies to Hezbollah depots in Lebanon. Several weapon convoys and shipments as well as storage houses in the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus were targeted by Israeli air strikes during the year 2017.
Expected Iranian strategies for protecting land crossings:
The forces allied with Iran in Iraq will continue changing the demographics of Diyala province, which was inhabited by a majority of Sunni Arabs before the events of Mossul 2014. Now it has become the most important starting point for transferring supplies through the three land crossings.
Iran will face the challenges of keeping its control over its land crossings that pass through a Sunni Arab geography in Iraq and Syria, amid sectarian discourse that is escalating between Sunnis and Shiites.
To confront these challenges, Iran must continue to deploy allied forces in Sunni areas for several years, while bearing the burdens of financing, arming and training them and providing what is required to protect them from potential attacks by Sunni organizations, whether from the armed Syrian opposition or ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Iran might be forced to seek assistance of Shiite armed groups in other countries to supervise and secure the land crossings, due to the difficulty of securing such long distances by the Iraqi security forces or local forces allied to Iran such as the PMU.
Iran will have to bear the consequences of challenging Israel’s refusal to establish a land crossing to Lebanon and Syria via Iraq, as it can be used to reinforce its supply lines to the loyalist organizations in both countries.
In that case, Iran will have to continue deploying Shiite armed groups in Syria in the future, which will block any international settlement for the Syrian war, from which the Assad regime will be absent.