Iran advances in fight for ground route to Lebanon
The land route would be the biggest prize yet for Iran in its involvement in Syria's six-year civil war.
It would facilitate movement of Iranian-backed fighters between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as well as the flow of weapons to Damascus and Lebanon's Hizballah, Iran's main proxy group.
It also positions Iran to play a prime and lucrative role in what is expected to be a massive rebuilding effort in both Iraq and Syria, which have been devastated in their ongoing wars.
The potential for a physical artery for Iran's influence across the region is raising concern in predominantly Sunni Arab countries, and in Israel - the nemesis of both Iran and Hizballah. It poses a challenge to the Trump administration, which has vowed to fight Iran's growing reach.
The route is largely being carved out by Iran's allies and proxies, a mix of forces including troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hizballah fighters and Shia militias on both sides of the border aiming to link up. Iran also has forces of its own Revolutionary Guard directly involved in the campaign on the Syrian side.
Concerns over their advances are expected to come up as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu holds talks on Wednesday with President Vladimir Putin, whose country is an ally of Iran and Assad.
The talks will focus "first and foremost (on) preventing Iran's military entrenchment in Syria", said David Keyes, a spokesman for Netanyahu.
"Iran's aggression in the region continues to grow. The regime is trying to entrench itself militarily on Israel's border. Israel cannot and will not allow this," he said. "Any ceasefire which allows Iran to establish a foothold in Syria is a danger to the entire region."
A corridor would be a boost for Israel's powerful enemy Hizballah, which reportedly has an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles. Iran currently ships weapons to Hizballah - whose political wing holds seats in Lebanon's parliament and positions in its cabinet - mostly by flying them to Syria to be transported by ground freight into Lebanon.
Israel has warned it would do what it could to keep Iran from threatening its borders and has carried out airstrikes in Syria against suspected weapons shipments bound for Hizballah.
Israel pushed hard for a US and Russia-brokered truce that came into effect recently in southern Syria to keep Iranian-backed militias at a distance from the Golan Heights, which Israel has militarily occupied since 1967.
The land route is by no means a fait accompli. Any road link will likely be a frequent target by Sunni insurgent groups.
But Iran's allies are making progress on both sides of the border, taking territory from the Islamic State group.
In recent months, Syrian troops and allied militiamen have marched forward on three fronts towards areas bordering Iraq. One of their main targets is the IS-held eastern city of Deir az-Zour.
Syrian troops and pro-Iranian Iraqi militia fighters do already meet at one small area on the border - the Jamouna region on the Iraqi side and Wadi al-Waer on the Syrian side. But the area is too dangerous to be used as a cargo transport corridor, since militants continue to launch hit-and-run attacks.
Syrian troops reached another part of the border in June, but much of the adjacent territory on the Iraqi side is still IS-held.
|Iran's influence in Syria is unstoppable even if Bashar Assad leaves power because Iran has deep links and presence in Syria.|
Inside Iraq, Iranian-backed Shia militias - part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces - are gaining more influence in predominantly Sunni areas bordering Syria. Shia fighters are involved in the battle to retake the Iraqi town of Tal Afar, which would boost the militias' hold on the nearby border region. The militia is also present in Iraq's western Anbar province bordering Syria.
"Our aim is to prevent any barriers from Iraq to Syria, all the way to Beirut," said Jaafar al-Husseini of Iraq's Kataeb Hizballah militia. "The resistance is close to achieving this goal".
Husseini warned that if the Pentagon tried to halt advances on the Syrian side, Iraqi militia fighters would target US troops in Iraq.
US-backed Syrian fighters had aimed to move up from southeastern Syria to the north, through IS-held territory along the Iraqi border, an assault that would have blocked pro-Iranian forces' moves to link up.
But in June, Assad's forces succeeded in reaching the border first, cutting them off. Now the American allies are preparing to try from the other direction, moving south along the border from the northeastern province of Hassakeh, according to Syrian activists.
|The Iran-backed PMF militia has been fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and carving out increasing political influence in Baghdad [AFP]|
'Axis of resistance'
In addition to hundreds of members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard corps, thousands of pro-Iranian fighters are deployed in Syria and have played an instrumental role in shoring up Assad's forces. They include Lebanon's Hizballah, Afghanistan's Fatimiyoun, Pakistan's Zeinabiyoun, as well as Iraq's Nujbaa and Kataeb Hizballah groups.
Iranian leaders avoid publicly speaking about their aim to link to the so-called "axis of resistance" - referring to Iran, Hizballah, Syria and other anti-Israel forces. But Tehran's allies have no qualms about showing their ambition.
"The aim is for a geographical connection between Syria, Iraq and the axis of resistance," Syrian Information Minister Ramez al-Turjuman said in a TV interview.
Earlier this year, Washington helped broker a deal between the Iraqi government and Olive Green, an American private security company, to secure the highway linking Baghdad with the Jordanian border. That was seen by Iran's allies as an attempt to impede its desired land link.
Qais al-Khazaali, who heads the Iranian-backed Iraqi Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, warned that the Iraqi people "will not allow the return of American security companies".
The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said it was almost impossible to prevent Iran from achieving its goal, after it spent hundreds of millions of dollars and sent arms and fighters to help keep Assad in power.
"Iran's influence in Syria is unstoppable, even if Bashar Assad leaves power, because Iran has deep links and presence in Syria," Abdurrahman said. "Had it not been for Iran, the regime would have collapsed in 2013."
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