Last month, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Al-Quds Force, released a photo of himself in the company of troops from the Fatemiyoun Brigade. They are mercenaries who belong to Hazara, a Persian-speaking Shi’ite minority group from Afghanistan. Many of the recruits are criminals or illegal immigrants to Iran, Iraq and even Syria, who are promised Iranian citizenship and a monthly salary in return for fighting.
Alongside Lebanese Hezbollah, the Afghan warriors are one of the Shi’ite militias mobilized by Iran and sent as cannon fodder to help defend the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. But Soleimani, one of his nation’s most charismatic and influential figures, is in Syria to accomplish an even more important and ambitious goal: to link Iran with Lebanon and reach the Mediterranean by creating a land corridor via the Shi’ite areas in Iraq and Syria.
The photo was taken at the Al Waleed border crossing known in Syria as al-Tanf, which is one of three official border crossings between Syria and Iraq. Its strategic importance is magnified by its close proximity to Jordan. It is no wonder Soleimani chose to be seen there.
If Iran manages to take over the border crossings, it can be the “Victory Photo” of the Islamic Republic in the Syrian civil war, which already has run longer than the Second World War. It will be a manifestation of Iran achieving the strategic purpose of establishing its hegemony in this part of the Middle East. Such a scenario, known as the “Shi’ite Crescent,” very much worries Israel, Jordan, and the Sunni world led by Saudi Arabia and the US.
It is true that Iran can maintain its ties with Assad and Hezbollah by air. However, with a land corridor, it will be easier for Iran to ferry more troops and equipment, and more difficult for Israeli intelligence to monitor it and for the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to attack.
Over the last three years, the IAF has executed dozens of bombing missions against convoys and arsenals of advanced long-range missiles – Iranian-made and destined for Hezbollah.
Those sorties were based on precise intelligence about Iranian weapon transports arriving by air at Damascus airport.
Israel’s concerns over Iranian expansionist ambitions are twofold. First, these can tempt Iran to gain a foothold near the Israeli border on Syria’s side of the Golan Heights.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his military chiefs have made it crystal clear that any such Iranian effort would trigger a strong Israeli response.
Two years ago, Israel defeated Soleimani’s small-scale attempts to establish anti-Israel units of sleeper cells, made of Hezbollah fighters, Syrians and Palestinians, near the border. Due to good intelligence, the IAF and Israeli artillery and rockets killed dozens of them, including their Hezbollah commander and an Iranian general who served as an adviser to these units.
Second, even if Iran is prevented from reaching the Golan Heights border directly or via its proxies and only consolidates its presence in Syria, it will still be a cause of great concern for the Israeli military. It will force Israel to divert military and financial resources to counter what would be a newly emerging front in the northeast. In recent years, the civil war in Syria has diluted that threat and allowed Israel to reduce its forces on that front.
The Iranian expansionist efforts are the main reason the US has increased its military operations in the al-Tanf area. US Special Forces and CIA agents and instructors are operating in the area to gather intelligence and train anti-Assad and pro-Western militias.
Just recently, US planes downed, for the first time in the war, a Syrian fighter jet and drone that got too close to its training camp in the region. In response, Russia, which supports Assad, condemned the American attacks and threatened to shoot down any US-led Western-coalition plane that flies “west of the Euphrates [River].”
All this hectic activity is also in preparation for the “day after” scenario with ISIS.
Islamic State is losing more ground in Iraq and Syria, and all the involved parties are struggling for control and influence in the vast areas it once held.
Jordan, too, is deeply concerned about Iranian activity not far from its border and plans to create a 30-kilometer buffer zone northwest of its border inside Syria.
Jordan, a key member of the US-led coalition, provides bases to train anti-Assad rebels, who are considered moderate and pro-Western.
The Hashemite Kingdom also hosts special forces and intelligence operatives from a variety of nations including the US, Britain, France, Germany, Poland and, according to foreign reports, Israel. Its air force carried out sorties against Islamic State in Syria until one of its pilots was captured and burned alive in a cage more than two years ago.
Jordanian intelligence is considered one of the best in the region, and enjoys the praise of its close partners in the war against terrorism ‒ the CIA, British MI6 and the Israeli Mossad. It has been reported that these spy agencies have even occasionally carried out joint operations to recruit and run agents from their enemies.
The Jordanian move to create an extended buffer zone and prevent Iran’s presence near its border also serves Israeli interests.
Close security, military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Jordan goes back nearly 50 years.
THE THIRD ruler of the Hashemite kingdom, King Hussein, met secretly with most Israeli leaders from 1963 until 1994 when he signed the peace treaty between the two countries. Like father like son, King Abdullah the Second, who inherited the throne in 1999, has also maintained close ties with Israel, which has loaned helicopters to the Royal Jordanian Air Force and provides satellite photos to its army.
And there is one more important factor.
Although Israeli leaders and military chiefs would never say it publicly, they are concerned about the stability of the kingdom and the safety of its rulers. On top of economic problems – price hikes and occasional riots – Jordan bears the heavy burden of 3 million refugees and foreigners (roughly 30 percent of its population) who have settled on its soil following the wars in Iraq and US interventions there, as well as the six-yearlong war in Syria.
Yet the refugees are not only a huge economic and social burden on the fragile Jordanian economy, they are also a conduit for infiltration by al-Qaida and ISIS terrorists who have in the past carried out terrorist attacks inside the kingdom.
The shared interests between Jordan and Israel are especially manifested in the Israeli-Jordanian-Syrian triangular border where a relatively small pro-ISIS militia has its bases.
Therefore, it can be assumed with certainty that Jordan’s plan is not only supported by the US, but also by Israel, because the move to secure Jordanian borders against Iran and its militias, as well as against ISIS terrorists, will also serve Israeli interests.
In that respect, the Jordanian plan has wide strategic ramifications. If the buffer zone is established, it will link Jordan and the US-led coalition to the large Druse community in its stronghold on the “Druse Mountain” in southern Syria.
The Druse are an ethnic minority with branches in Jordan and Israel. They serve in the IDF and security forces.
Although in Syria the Druse have traditionally supported the regime – any regime – their ethnic and religious isolation has pushed them to carry out independent initiatives, linking their disparate brethren across the borders, as well. It has been reported that Israel, too, has maintained contacts with the Druse in Syria.
These steps in southern Syria must also be considered against the background of what happens in the country’s north, where the Syrian Kurds, in alliance with the US, are the major fighting force with eyes on capturing Raqqa, the “capital” of Islamic State.
All in all, such operations in northeastern and southeastern Syria, though they are not coordinated, are complimentary in aim.
They are intended to prevent Iran from carving out its land corridor in the Shi’ite Crescent, or at least to reduce and narrow it.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman.