With 2018 fast approaching, there seems no let-up in any of the bloody wars that have been deeply affecting our lives in the Middle East for so long. Whatever be the condition in the Levant or the Gulf, Iran’s aggressive ascendancy may eventually see the beginning of its decline this year.
There are several reasons for that.
Iran’s powerful militia, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has been directly leading the military operations in both Iraq and Syria for a few years now. IRGC, alongside the “Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units” (IPMU), have recently advanced deeply into Syrian territory. They have sent tens of thousands of troops inside Syria via a strategic highway linking up Baghdad to the city of Deir Al Zour in the eastern part of the country.
Opposition sources have recently indicated that large convoys of men and military equipment have been moved deep into Syria via the Iraqi-Syrian crossing point of Abu Kamal, by both IRGC and IPMU. This became possible after long battles in which forces of both militias were engaged with Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant).
Meanwhile, one of the IRGC’s five special forces, Basij militia, has been actively engaged in the last few years in setting up a Syrian version of IPMU, known as National Defence Forces (NDF). Iran is directly financing and training NDF whose commanders are hand-picked by the Iranian commander of the Quds Force (QF), general Qasim Sulaimani.
Now, following the recent defeat of Daesh and almost complete annihilation of the national opposition, including the Free Syrian Army in Syria, with air cover provided by Russian pilots, IRGC has established an all-inclusive route stretching from Tehran to the heart of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on the Mediterranean. This route, which is under the total control of Sulaimani’s forces, runs through Baghdad, the Syrian-Iraqi crossing of Abu Kamal and Deir Al Zour and through to Damascus. In other words, General Sulaimani can now easily drive, unhindered, from Tehran to Beirut.
It is no secret that the role of QF, as well the Lebanese militia of Hezbollah, had played a crucial role in getting NDF started in 2013. The Syrian NDF stands now at more than 100,000 members. The United States government had declared two years ago its awareness of Iran’s direct role in helping set up the NDF, modelled after its own Basij. Based on voluntary recruitment and lucrative incentives, NDF has been hugely successful in attracting young Syrian males and females, more than the country’s national army has ever done.
Many believe that Iran, with such regional strategy, is stretching its resources beyond its ability to be ready for the long haul. If one adds Tehran’s devious role in Yemen and the extensive aid it continuously provides to Al Houthis, the pressure on an ordinary Iranian individual is manifold — in a society where corruption is eating up the state’s resources and the gap between the rich few and the rest is rapidly increasing.
Iran’s main aim of helping Al Houthi rebels is to set up an Iranian ally in the backyard of Saudi Arabia. Tehran is also anxious to establish its military presence in Yemen. Such a presence, will give Iran a major boost for its movement through the Mandab Strait (Bab Al Mandab), through which 3-4 million barrels of Saudi oil passes every day.
However, Iran’s policy in the region has also started to affect its recently-established friendship with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made his displeasure known about IRGC movements in the region, particularly in Syria, which concerns Moscow the most. The Russians believe Iran’s latest expansion in Syria may harm Moscow’s endeavours to bring peace to the country. As the Geneva rounds of talks over the last few years have failed to produce any significant outcome, the Russians have recently introduced their formula for talks through the Sochi option. The Sochi track was intended to reflect the common understanding and partnership among Russia, Iran and Turkey in determining Syria’s future.
But IRGC’s go-it-alone strategy has recently irked the Russians who are now seeking an urgent explanation from Tehran. The civilian administration of President Hassan Rouhani may have agreed at the Sochi summit on the plan of partnership with Russia and Turkey, but the IRGC leadership has a different view of the issue. It is obviously clear the latter is anxious to maintain its strong presence that it has established over the last six years in Syria, with the help of its own proxies and Hezbollah. Having succeeded in establishing the Syrian NDF, IRGC is aiming at securing long-term Iranian influence in Syria and restructuring the country’s politico-military system in keeping with its own image.