Everything Tehran touches dies. Iranian leaders repeatedly trumpet their dominance over four Arab capitals: Damascus, Sanaa, Baghdad and Beirut. Yet civil wars in Yemen and Syria, already hell on earth, have recently increased in ferocity. Iraq and Lebanon are again gripped by paroxysms of rioting and violence, as protesters express fury at chronic corruption and Iranian meddling. Having endured 40 years of the Islamic regime, ordinary Iranians find their lives perhaps even more unbearable.
Those who warn about creeping Iranian regional dominance are written off as alarmists. Yet with depressing regularity, predictions prove true. Tehran’s aspirations to extend its corridor of regional dominance through eastern Syria had until now been thwarted. However, thanks to Trump’s allowance of the Turkish invasion and his drawdown of US forces, Quds Force’s Qassim Soleimani can finish what he started.
An Iranian passageway through Syria would facilitate the arming of Hezbollah and other proxies and allow Iran to tighten its aggressive encirclement of the Gulf region, while offering access to Europe via the Mediterranean and making the Damascus and Beirut regimes wholly subservient to Tehran. Additional smuggling routes for narcotics, arms and people promise more revenue, while underpinning the export of insurgency, anarchy and terrorism.
The Kurds have reluctantly invited the Damascus regime back into eastern Syria, but Assad’s shattered and demoralized military machine scarcely has the manpower to secure territory in its western heartlands, so it will necessarily rely on irregular troops to reassert itself further east. Given that Iran-backed elements already operate under the coat tails of Assad’s forces, creeping Iranian expansion may be difficult to detect until too late.
According to my trusted Western diplomatic sources, Tehran is exploiting the fog of war to beef up its proxy presence in the Syrian Golan. Israeli analysts warn that renewed Iranian expansionism and vaporization of Western commitments leave Israel dangerously vulnerable, while creating inexorable momentum toward a major conflict. Increased military support in readiness for this looming confrontation was among the demands from Netanyahu last Friday when he met a discomforted Mike Pompeo, who struggled to justify Trump’s unforced blunders.
The latest Syria deal is a farcical face-saver for Trump, with the Turks dismissing it as a “pause” and skirmishes continuing. It represents further legitimization of the 30km+ zone-of-control as a permanent de facto appendage of Turkey. Ideas have circulated among Turkish politicians for compelling resettled Syrians to use Turkish documentation, with Kurdish citizens entirely excluded.
The world must wake from deep sleep and quickly, because we are not far from the moment when region-wide Iranian dominance is an uncontestable reality.
Since 2017 Iran has consolidated a bridgehead on the Syria-Iraq border, centered on Al-Qaim, under the control of Tehran-backed Iraqi paramilitaries. These forces have conducted operations in eastern Syria and stood ready to make advances as soon as America withdrew from Syria. Communities in Deir Ezzor have protested against Iranian encroachment in the form of efforts to buy off local politicians and recruit young men for paramilitary operations, as well as propaganda activities.
Iran is unnerved by mass protests in Shiite-majority areas of Iraq. Iranian paramilitary proxies were deployed to crack down violently on protesters and terrorize journalists, with many demonstrators murdered by militia snipers. Intelligence sources have cited an Iranian proposal to deploy 11,000 riot police to Najaf and Karbala, ostensibly to protect pilgrims but in practice as a quasi-permanent force to stamp out unrest. Massive Iranian investments and construction projects in Iraq’s holy cities are additional tactics to perpetuate its influence.
Amid nationwide Lebanese protests against declining living standards, a stagnant economy and misgovernance, for the first time there have been outbreaks of anger in Hezbollah strongholds. Hezbollah prides itself on the monopoly of its ideology throughout Shiite communities, so these manifestations of criticism and popular frustration have been highly discomforting for a movement used to acting with impunity, through its dominance of various sectors of the economy.
Nevertheless, Hezbollah is reaping propaganda capital from Syrian developments. “America broke faith with Kurds and abandoned them. Such a fate awaits anyone who trusts Washington,” thundered Hassan Nasrallah. Some Hezbollah figures mutter about imposing a new strategic reality, capitalizing on Iranian and Russian ascendancy and the demise of Western influence. Although Hezbollah has aggressively sought to repatriate Syrian refugees, displaced Sunnis have been prevented from returning to Hezbollah’s Syrian strongholds such as Qusair, which it is carving out as zones of exclusive control.
Many observers portray Turkey as the net winner from this chaos, but all Erdogan may win from his ill considered incursion into the Syrian quagmire is a bloody nose. Meanwhile Iran is pursuing its own expansionist program well away from the media spotlight. By stepping up uranium enrichment and reducing cooperation with inspectors, the ayatollahs believe Western powers will eventually beg for a new deal at any price.
Arab nations must capitalize on their unusually united position at the recent Arab League session to re-engage in Syrian affairs and block Iran. The world must wake from deep sleep and quickly, because we are not far from the moment when region-wide Iranian dominance is an uncontestable reality. Just as Obama’s failure to enforce his chemical weapons “red lines” was a decisive turning point in the Syria conflict, Trump’s failure to counter Iranian aggression and his abandonment of the Kurds may later be seen as the point of no return on Iran’s inexorable path to regional dominance.
When King Abdullah of Jordan in 2004 warned of the extension of a “Shia crescent” across the region, Western leaders responded dismissively. In any case, recent explosions of Shiite anger against Iran are a reminder that the ayatollahs only ever cynically exploited Shiite affiliations for their own ends.
Yet in a revealing hint of the full extent of Iran’s megalomaniacal ambitions, Tehran’s Iraqi henchman Qais Al-Khazali boasted: “We’ll continue working toward our project of a Shia full moon — not a Shia crescent as our enemies say!”
Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.