This is where the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) enter the fray
Much has been made recently of the events unfolding in southern Syria, near the border with Iraq and Jordan, and also further north, in the area straddling the Syrian-Iraqi frontier where Daesh still operates. Much of the hype is a result of the US airstrikes on May 18, June 5 and June 8 against “Iranian-directed” forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, which were closing in on Syrian rebel positions near Al Tanf.
Al Tanf is a southern town on the highway connecting Syria and Iraq, a route that until recently was not used by Iraqis, as it was under the control of Daesh on the Iraqi side. The highway, which goes all the way to Damascus, is essential for Iran to maintain a contiguous land corridor from Baghdad to Damascus, and from there on to southern Lebanon. In fact, this has been one of the fundamental reasons behind Iran’s support for the Syrian government.
The US airstrikes on the pro-Assad forces approaching Al Tanf, therefore, were aimed at preventing Iran, and its Syrian and Iraqi allies, from controlling those areas in southern Syria, from where land route can be established and consolidated. The Syrian government, despite having won a strategic victory along the central spine connecting Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo, still does not control any of the border points with Iraq. This explains the recent military movements east of Sweida and south of Palmyra.
There are four highways connecting Iraq to Syria: The aforementioned highway bypassing Al Tanf, dubbed Highway 11; the highway near the Iraqi border town of Al Qaim further north, which is controlled by Daesh on both sides of the border; the northern highway passing through the Rabia border crossing just south of Turkey, controlled by Syrian and Iraqi Kurds on both sides; and the strategic Highway 47, used by Daesh to storm Mosul in 2014.
This is where the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) enter the fray. With three of the four crossings controlled by either the Syrian rebels, Kurdish groups, or Daesh, recent offensives by Iraqi militias on Highway 47 succeeded where their fellow militias failed on the Syrian side of the border further south in Al Tanf.
The PMU successes potentially open up one of the four routes for Iranian supplies to reach Assad, and its other allies in Syria. The highway passing through the Rabia border crossing is controlled by well equipped, albeit different, Kurdish forces on both sides of the border, with whom the Iranian and Syrian governments have no quarrel. It is expected, therefore, that Iran and the Syrian government will manoeuvre to control the three remaining land corridors linking the two countries. If one fails, the other two remain. So far, it seems the US is preventing this plan from being realised on the highway bypassing Al Tanf, Washington’s pretext of “defending local allies” from pro-government forces notwithstanding.
The battle for Syria’s western and central heartland, often referred to as “useful” Syria, is practically over. And with the recent agreement on de-escalation zones signed by Russia, Turkey, and Iran having freed up Syrian army forces to be redeployed across frontlines in the Homs desert and Euphrates valley, clashes between the Syrian government and opposition forces in areas across southern Syria, where Daesh was recently defeated, are expected to increase. Even the Syrian government and rebel patrons, Moscow and Washington, respectively, recently signed an agreement to boost co-ordination in order to avoid incidents – a testament to the increasingly crowded battleground in the eastern Syrian desert.
What does this mean for a final peace agreement? The next phase of the Syrian war has already begun, where regional nations that have invested people, money, arms, or all three, will seek to consolidate their gains in order to secure their strategic objectives. An enduring peace agreement will likely not materialise until Turkey achieves an acceptable outcome regarding the Kurds, Russia cements its hold on Syria, and Iran secures its land corridor to the Mediterranean coast.
Washington understands that even if it opposes Assad the way it says it does, it can do nothing now to unseat him, unless it is prepared to face the Syrian president’s Russian patron. Instead, the US may attempt to take measures to thwart Iran’s long-term ambitions, such as blocking access to the highways mentioned above, and limiting the transfer of strategic weapons to Hezbollah. In post-Daesh Iraq and Syria, the regional and international chess game that characterised the Syrian crisis will look clearer, with the players making their final moves for a checkmate.
Mohamed Hineidi is a senior analyst at The Delma Institute, an international affairs research house located in Abu Dhabi
Source : Khaleej Times