Are Iran’s Afghan ‘cannon fodder’ in Syrian corridor to confront US?

Iran’s role in Syria was mentioned by the US State Department as part of discussions between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Israel.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, March 4, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, March 4, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A parade of fighters from the Zaynabiyoun brigade of Pakistani Shi’ites was seen in Albukamal Syria, near the Iraqi border recently. Other members of an Afghan unit, called Fatemiyoun, were also present. Hundreds of the men took part in a parade. They may be increasing activities to help protect a key road that helps transport Iranian weapons to Hezbollah via Syria. They may also be present as part of Iran’s plan to create a network of units along the road.
 
There appears to be increased activity by pro-Iranian groups between Albukamal and Deir Ezzor in Syria, along the Euphrates river across from where US-led Coalition forces and their Syrian Democratic Forces partners are located. Hezbollah members have been photographed in the same area. Ostensibly some of the public activity of these groups is linked to religious events for Ramadan.
 
Iran’s role in Syria was mentioned by the US State Department as part of discussions between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Israel. Reports in Israeli media in early May indicated that Iran might be withdrawing some of the 1,000 personnel it has in Syria in response to airstrikes that had hit Iranian sites in recent months. However other reports, by US Syria Envoy James Jeffrey, said Iran still sought a strategic corridor in Syria to use Syria as a base of attacks against Israel and to arm Hezbollah with precision guided munitions. Iranian backed militias have not left their posts near Albukamal. There appears to be concerted social media campaign to expose the role of the Zaynabiyioun units between Albukamal and Deir Ezzor. ‘Sada Al-Sharqieh’ has been posting about their role.
 
Meanwhile a separate set of rumors indicate Russia may be taking efforts against Iran’s role in Deir Ezzor. Omar Abu Layla, who covers and tweets about issues in the region with Deir Ezzor 24, wrote on May 14 that Russia “continues to take bolder steps against Iran in Deir Ezzor.” It may be recruiting its own units in the area to compensate for Iran’s attempt to recruit militias and station them along the corridor.
 
A third piece of the puzzle includes new images published by ImageSat International that show a new tunnel at Iran’s Imam Ali base near Albukamal. Initial reports of another tunnel had also been published by ImageSat on December 10. In December the Fatemiyun had threatened Israel in new videos. This area was struck by the US in December and again by an unknown air force in March. The Imam Ali base appears to have been constructed in the wake of the June 2018 airstrikes that eviscerated an Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah base near Albukamal. It was first revealed in September 2019.
 
A US State Department official, commenting on the Iranian threat in Syria on May 13, said that “you see things oftentimes blowing up in Syria,” a cryptic comment meant to indicate that Iran’s shipments across Syria are in danger. Is it a coincidence that the next day the images of the parade of IRGC-recruited Afghans and Pakistanis appeared? It could be a message. A new camp was reportedly opened for these units in the Imam Ali base area.
 
Asharq al-Awsat, the London-based publication, put out a report on May 14 asserting that “the US, Russia and Israel are pushing to block a strategic road corridor between Tehran and Beirut.” According to this narrative the attempt to interdict the Iranians and their militias also involves the US-backed SDF who are located in eastern Syria and also the Maghawir al-Thawra, or MaT unit of US-backed Syrian rebels located in Tanf base near Jordan. The Iranian corridor runs between these two US-backed jaws, with Tanf on one side and the SDF in Baghouz on the other. But the Russians, who back the Assad regime, want the US to leave. Iran also wants the US removed from Iraq and Syria. Stories of Russia confronting Iran in Syria are in contrast to stories arguing Iran is now flying into Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in Syria. Another report last night reported a Russian air force plane flying via Iran to Syria. There appears to be more activity at Khmeimim as Cham Wings flights keep flying from there to Libya where Russia backs one side in the civil war. Any idea that the US and Russia might cooperate would also seem to be in contrast to Jeffrey’s comments about making Syria a “quagmire” for Russia. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah also recently rejected theories that Iran and Russia are competing in Syria. He blamed Israel for strikes on missile production facilities in Syria.
 
The overall picture in Syria is one of confusion. On the one hand it is clear that Iran’s Afghan and Pakistan mercenaries are increasingly visible in the Albukamal-Deir Ezzor corridor. Previously Iranian-backed Iraqi militias had been using this area as well. They continue to control the Iraqi side of the border under the banner of the Hashd al-Sha’abi or Popular Mobilization Units. Satellite photos show construction at the Imam Ali base and it seems the Afghan and Pakistani units play a role there.
 
The idea that the US and Russia would somehow confront Iran’s presence seems unlikely. Iran and Russia continue to work together in Syria. The fact that the US wants to make Syria a “quagmire” for Russia and the fact the US is confronting Russia and Iran in Venezuela runs counter to a strategy to talk with Russia about Iran’s role in Syria. The idea that the SDF and units in Tanf could be activated against Iran’s role also seems unlikely. They may serve as a way to conceal intelligence collection, but active attacks on Iranian mercenaries seems impossible, considering the SDF must also deal with the regime and Russia in northern Syria and must deal with ISIS sleeper cells and apparently is helping the US guard oil wells. They are more a blocking force to Iran’s goal, than a way to remove Iran. What is clear, is that many people have an interest in revealing Iran’s role in the corridor to put a spotlight on the role of Iranian-backed groups.