In recent weeks, the strategic map of the Middle East has been redrawn with potentially momentous consequences. Yet these dramatic events have been largely ignored by most commentators and policymakers.
The strategic breakthroughs by Iran and several of its key Arab clients and proxies in northern and western Iraq, as well as eastern Syria, will be nothing short of regionally transformative if consolidated over the coming months and years.
Almost 15 years ago, King Abdullah II of Jordan, alarmed by evident Iranian meddling in Iraq’s first post-Saddam election, warned of the emergence of a “Shiite crescent”, dominated by Tehran and arching across the northern Middle East. Ever since, this prospect has haunted the nightmares of many Arab states and Israel, as well as insightful and well-informed Turks and Americans.
The essential precondition for the development of such an Iranian-dominated mini-empire in the Middle East is the creation of a long-cherished “land bridge” linking Tehran to Beirut and the Mediterranean. This is a prize of such enormity that even the great Persian empires of the past have scarcely dreamt of it.
It would give Iran direct and full control of a military corridor to its key Arab proxy, Hizbollah, and to Lebanon, the epicentre and locus of its influence in the Arab world dating back to the early 1980s.
Yet this ambition has been fanciful and speculative ... until now.
In recent weeks, Iran and several of its proxies, including Hizbollah, various Iraqi militias, including Iraq's own version of Hizbollah and the so-called "Popular Mobilisation Forces" – as well as elements of Baghdad's military and the army of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad – have seized control of key areas in northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria. This makes the establishment, at least for now, of an Iranian-controlled land bridge to Lebanon a virtual fait accompli.
In the aftermath of the ill-fated Kurdish independence referendum, Iraqi government forces and various Iranian-backed militias seized control of key areas from Kurdish troops. These not only included the disputed city of Kirkuk – and oilfields that had provided the bulk of the Kurdistan Regional Government's income – but also strategically crucial areas leading to and along the border with Syria. They also took advantage of the last stages of the battle against the ISIL "caliphate" to gain control of similar areas along the Syrian border.
And in Syria, following the fall of Raqqa, not only has the Syrian military seized control of analogous territories on the Iraqi border, pro-Iranian Iraqi militias crossed over into Syria to assist the effort.
With the capture by Syrian government forces and Iraqi militias of Al Bokamal – which abuts the Iraqi town of Al Qaim and its key border crossing – and other strategic areas of Deir Ezzor province, the territory separating pro-Iranian forces is now negligible. The only thing preventing the complete control and linkage of these territories is ISIL remnants, which are bound to disintegrate quickly.
This means that pro-Iranian forces have captured, or very shortly and inevitably will control, the final pieces of a land bridge leading from Tehran to Beirut. It’s particularly ironic that despite Donald Trump’s constant vows to confront Iran, Washington has done nothing to try to prevent, reverse or even acknowledge this transformative development.
Israel has been loudly complaining about growing Iranian and Hizbollah power in Syria, but also hasn’t acted to reverse it. And Saudi Arabia, which was incapable of stopping these developments, is primarily retaliating by squeezing Hizbollah politically in Lebanon, the efficacy of which very much remains to be determined.
If this massive Iranian strategic triumph is consolidated, then Tehran will be close to achieving its status of becoming the region's superpower rather than simply being a large and formidable Middle Eastern country with many allies and heft. Indeed, it is the key to the possible eventual emergence of an actual “Shiite crescent” dominated by Iran.
This Iranian accomplishment is tenuous and fragile and could be broken in half a dozen places and a dozen ways. Achieving that is essential if countries sceptical of Tehran’s intentions want to prevent Tehran emerging as the dominant regional power.
Russian air power played a key role in linking Al Bokamal and Al Qaim and, therefore, realising Iran’s emergent land bridge to Beirut and the Mediterranean. Moscow must be given good reasons to re-assess its interests in Iran becoming this powerful, not only in Syria, but possibly through an arc curving across the northern Middle East.
The Syrian Democratic Forces remain a potential serious counterforce if empowered and encouraged. Alternatively, other effective forces could be created. The restoration of the KRG and formation of a Sunni federal area in western Iraq are other possible solutions. And the Iraqi government in Baghdad could be separated from Tehran based on Iraqi national identity and interests.
There are many potential effective responses. But the depth of the crisis needs to be acknowledged and all opposed to an imperial Iran need to co-ordinate a response that denies Tehran the land bridge it is securing and the crescent of control to which that may lead.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC