The militias are gaining ground between Iraq and Syria, providing a route for Iran to move supplies, troops, and create their own version of an expanding colonialism. While Iran might not claim these lands as officially part of Iran, it is clear that their influence is being felt in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. These countries have already received the benefits of Iran’s military to assist in ridding them of ISIS, but the cost may have been their autonomy.
The Popular Mobilisation Front (PMF) is just one example. This group, led by Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, has been key in securing Ba’aj, a foundation point of the plan to secure ground forces across the region. It isn’t just a question of conquering ISIS in these regions. Iran's plan is clearly to set a permanent force in these areas. Bulldozers and other machines meant to create roads and contribute to building projects, have been seen in the area.
They are met to consolidate the leftover network of roads and build secure passageway for Iran in this area of the region. The PMF is also setting up a permanent camp in Ba’aj, using blast walls to announce their presence in the neighborhood. Flags of Shia militias are popping up all over, heralding the presence of Iran, even if their flag hasn’t been officially pushed into the dirt.
While the argument has been made that Iran is part of the fight against ISIS, to those who are familiar with Iran’s Supreme Leader, there is more to the story.
It is really a question of what is in it for Iran. Even as they help to secure areas against ISIS, they are also setting up bases for their troops, ensuring that they will not be handing these areas back over to their governments with goodwill in mind.
In fact, Iran sees its growing influence as a way to force the international community to take them seriously, while ignoring their human rights abuses and the executions that go unabated. How far will Iran be allowed to go before the international community puts its foot down and takes action.
The transformation of Ba’aj, from an out-of-bounds haven for ISIS to a focal point of Iran’s efforts to change the regional dynamic, is taking place rapidly. But this just one point in a larger highway that is being created.
In early May, PMF leaders told their senior members a land corridor that would give Iran a supply line across Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon, had been rerouted south of Mt Sinjar, 25 miles to the north. Ba’aj was to be the first main hub, and from there the road was to cross into Syria through the city of Deir Azzour and town of Mayedin, both of which remain under ISIS control.
Since then, Iranian backed forces, led by Suleimani, have massed on both sides of the border near the Damascus-Baghdad highway, leading to at least three clashes with U.S. forces and their Syrian opposition proxies near the town of Tanf.
The highway is a focal point of efforts to safeguard a viable route, but senior PMF members said other potential corridors were also being explored as the collapse of ISIS rapidly changes the battlefield around the border.
The movement of forces around the border area has become a bewildering game of chess between multiple players, with Iranian-backed militias leading the Syrian army toward Iraq from the west, and the same leadership moving Iraqi militias toward them from the east.
The effect has also been to stymie U.S. intentions to move north from Mayedin to fight ISIS in its last redoubt, which is thought likely to be to the west of Deir Azzour. With spheres of influence and control being drawn across the battlefields, it is clear that the wisdom of the day seems to be focused on who controls Syria, greatly increases their control over the region and its stability.
On July 1, 2017, a Free Iran gathering will be held. Iranians, their supporters, and international leaders will convene on Paris to discuss the future of Iran and its regime. For many, the focus of Iran on military objectives goes against the reality of life for many Iranians, full of repression, intimidation, and even outright torture.
This gathering will be focused on regime change, but one that will assist in stabilizing the region, not through military and fundamentalism, but through democracy and respect for the rights of all Iranian citizens. Will the international community be paying attention? Or will they continue to give Iran the ground needed to build an even larger arc of influence in the region?