Iran is seeking to build a “land bridge” to extend the reach of its influence all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, and “disrupting” this corridor should be a priority of the United States, a paper published on Tuesday by the Washington, DC-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank said.
The paper, authored by David Adesnik and Benham Ben Taleblu, respectively director of research and a senior fellow at FDD, with a forward penned by former US National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, chairman of FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power, also asserted that while the US needed to prevent the establishment of the “land bridge,” it must at the same time avoid “a myopic focus” on it that would lead to overlooking wider Iranian ambitions is the region.
Iran is seeking a land route as a means of transferring troops, weapons and even cash to its proxies, because the existing air route is vulnerable to disruption.
One of the advantages for Iran of a “land bridge” would be its enabling of an increase of shipments of weapons to the Tehran regime’s Shi’a proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Syrian Golan, threatening Israel. This, in turn, would up the likelihood of escalation, possibly “leading to a regional war that directly threatens U.S. allies and U.S. interests across the Middle East.”
In addition, the land bridge would be key to Iranian efforts to expand its influence across the Middle East.
The paper explained that while Iran had three possible routes for this “land bridge,” none was yet totally under Iran’s control. Two of the routes are blocked.
The northern route, which passes through the Iraqi city of Rabia into Syria, is currently cut off due to the presence of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. As long as the US remains allied with the YPG, Iran would not be able to exploit it for the “land bridge.”
There are two southern routes, the lower of which is blocked by the US presence at the al-Tanf military base in Syria.
However, the upper branch of the southern route is open to Iran, though it is not fully under Iranian control. Israeli air strikes on the Syrian town of Albu Kamal last year reportedly killed 20 members of the pro-Iranian Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah. The militia members were apparently smuggling weapons. An Israeli official told The Wall Street Journal at the time that the air strikes showed that Israel would not tolerate an Iranian land bridge.
The FDD paper made some suggestions to prevent the establishment of a secure Iranian “land bridge” and, more generally, to fight Iran’s efforts to extend its hegemony across the region.
The US must maintain its military presence in Syria, it said.
“President [Donald] Trump prevented a calamity of his own making by allowing 400 U.S. troops remain in Syria,” the paper asserted. But even that did not reflect military considerations, but political ones, it noted. Toward this end, the paper recommended that the US urge other members of the anti-ISIS coalition to deploy more troops in Syria to restore the force to the strength it had prior to the withdrawal of most American troops.
Related to this, the paper recommended keeping the US presence at al-Tanf. It also called on the US to extend assistance to the nearby refugee camp at Rukban, which is on Syria’s border with Jordan.
The US should also help the Syrian Democratic Forces (a combination of Arab and Kurdish forces) become more militarily self-sufficient, the paper stated.
The paper also recommended that the US upgrade its military partnership with Iraq. This would hopefully make Iraqi forces less susceptible to Iranian influence. While there would appear to be limits to this activity as “it remains unlikely that Baghdad would dispatch its security forces to confront Iranian proxies,” Iraq might still be willing to share critical information with the US.
Furthermore, the paper said the US should back the Israeli military’s efforts to thwart Iran’s “land bridge” project. It also suggested that the Trump administration ask Congress for an Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) specifically targeting the illicit shipments of Iranian weapons to the Tehran regime’s proxies.
There also a number of economic measures that were recommended by the paper. These include extending sanctions targeting Iranian airlines that ferry arms and troops; extending terror designations to all Iraqi militias controlled by Iran; and increasing economic sanctions on both the Assad regime and Hezbollah.
While the efforts to shut down Iran’s “land bridge” were important, the paper cautioned, “These cannot be isolated efforts; they must be part of a comprehensive response to Iran’s growing influence in the region.”
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Author: David Gerstman
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