Risks remain as Iraqi militias press ahead with Iran’s bridge to Syria

The route in Iraq passes through Sunni-majority areas and longtime extremist strongholds, and brushes territory claimed by the Kurds, inviting attack and tensions that could boil over into open conflict.

Shiite fighters from Iraq’s Hashed Al Shaabi militias advance towards the village of Salmani, south of Mosul, on October 30, 2016. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP
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ERBIL // When ISIL surged across Iraq in 2014, it ushered in a new era of direct Iranian involvement in the country.

Soon, Iranian military advisers were a common feature on the front lines, as Shiite militia groups threw themselves at the advancing ISIL fighters. With Iranian help, these militias managed to stop the terror group from penetrating the Shiite-majority areas in the east and south of Iraq. In turn, the Iranians have used the militias to pursue their own goal – establishing a land corridor from Iran to Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

Through this land bridge, Iran will be better able to supply men and material to its regional ally, Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. It also gives Tehran access to the Mediterranean, thereby establishing a potential trade route to the west that is significantly shorter than the sea route around the Arabian peninsula.

The militias, known collectively as the Hashed Al Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), have long been a potent force in Iraqi politics, and many of the groups have close ties with Iran. Officially sanctioned by the Iraqi government, their decision-making is shaped as much by Tehran as by Baghdad.

On the ground, members of the Quds Force, the branch of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard responsible for overseas military operations, have had a decisive influence on the Hashed. Led by the charismatic Major General Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force was also crucial in preventing the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria.

As the tide of war gradually turned against ISIL in 2015 and the extremists started losing ground to the Iraqi military and the militias, the Iranians began to utilise the Hashed to a more strategic end.

Slowly, gains by the Hashed began to form a corridor traversing Iraq, entering Syria and leading to the port city of Latakia. This route passes Kurdish-controlled territory in Iraq’s Diyala province and goes through the Hashed-controlled city of Tikrit in Salahaddin province before turning northward to the Nineveh plains abutting the Syrian border. It skirts the city of Mosul, which the Iraqi military has been fighting to liberate from ISIL since October last year, and turns westward again, past the besieged ISIL bastion of Tal Afar and towards the Syrian border near the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar.

This route leads through Sunni-majority areas and longtime extremist strongholds, and brushes territory claimed by the Kurds, inviting attack and tensions that could boil over into open conflict.

In Syria, the corridor could extend through the Kurdish enclave in the north-east, which is controlled by a subsidiary of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group. From there, it continues through regime territory around Aleppo before running south to Damascus and then north-west from there into the coastal province of Latakia, a stronghold of the Assad regime. The heavy presence of US forces assisting the battle against ISIL might prevent Iranian fighters from crossing Rojava, as the Kurdish enclave is known. Instead, the corridor could be completed by expelling ISIL from Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province.

The Hashed recently completed the Iraqi part of the corridor by advancing from the city of Tal Afar to the Syrian border. They have expelled ISIL from the town of Baaj to secure the route, and can cross into Syria via the dirt tracks traditionally used by smugglers in the area. Good relations with the Yazidi branch of the PKK, which controls part of the Sinjar region, potentially gives the Shiite militias access to the main road that traverses the area. But here the Hashed could come into conflict with Peshmerga fighters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two main parties of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. The KDP has close ties with Turkey, which is competing with Iran for sway in northern Iraq and is intent on curbing the PKK’s influence where it can. The PKK has been fighting a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

“Turkey has been concerned about the PKK and PMF presence in the area, and we may eventually see a Turkish-supported push by KDP security forces to clear the PKK zone around Mount Sinjar,” said Alex Mello, lead Iraq security analyst at the Horizon Client Access consultancy.

Though proving their worth in battle, the Hashed will find it difficult to maintain their grip on the areas that constitute the land bridge crossing Iraq.

“Before 2014, the area through which the PMF corridor now runs had only a very light security presence. Historically, it was also some of the toughest, most hardcore insurgent country in Iraq ... and it’s likely the PMF will have difficulty securing their route against insurgent IED harassment, fake checkpoints, ambushes et cetera,” Mr Mello said.

A particular problem is the sectarian make up of the militias, a mainly Shiite force that is trying to keep open a route that leads through Sunni areas of Iraq.

“Salahaddin is a Sunni majority province, and there is simply no way for this to work without moving through Sunni majority areas,” said Kirk Sowell, the principal at Utica Risk Services.

In Nineveh, the highway would run through Sunni Arab areas, he said.

“It is hard to imagine for me that this would not be a problem.”

The Hashed have had some success in co-opting local Sunni tribes in Diyala province and northern Iraq, but Iraq’s sectarian tensions will continue to threaten Iran’s efforts to connect with its regional allies.