Politics WATCH: US experts worry about Iranian expansion after IS defeat

WATCH: US experts worry about Iranian expansion after IS defeat
Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), praying on the Iraq-Syrian border. (Photo: Tasnim News Agency)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan24) – Experts on the Middle East from two Washington think-tanks have told Kurdistan24 of their concern over Iran’s expanding reach in Iraq and Syria, as the Islamic State (IS) is pushed back and defeated.

A vacuum is being created, and Iran is seeking to fill it.

Dr. David Pollock, a former State Department official and currently a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, suggested Iran was trying to create a “contiguous land bridge” across Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean and Beirut, where the oldest and largest pro-Iranian militia, Hezbollah, is based.

Pollock even suggested pro-Iranian forces fighting in Syria on behalf of the regime might push south toward that country’s borders with Jordan and Israel.

Washington’s highly-regarded PBS NewsHour on Monday reported that Israel was “anxiously watching” Hezbollah’s expansion, while an incident on Sunday left five men dead on the Syrian border after they ignored warning shots from Jordanian border guards to stop or turn around.

Pollock also thought it likely that once IS was defeated in Iraq, some elements in the Hashd al-Shaabi, having reached the Syrian border, would cross that frontier and join the struggle there in support of Bashar al-Assad.

“That’s not news,” Pollock said. “There are already very substantial Iraqi Shia militias led by Iranian officers operating on behalf of the Assad regime and its allies inside Syria.”

“For the Hashd al-Shaabi to join that fight in a more organized way and in larger numbers after they’re done with the fighting around Mosul,” Pollock suggested, “seems very logical and very likely.”

Indeed, on Monday, Iranian media reported that Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), had visited the Iraqi-Syrian border after Shia forces on both sides had reached the frontier.

Pollock also believes the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) is involved, at least to some extent. He rejects the Hashd al-Shaabi’s recent claim that they expelled the PKK from south Shingal.

“They’re not fighting each other,” he affirmed. “They are establishing friendly contact with each other and agreeing on zones of control.”

John Hannah was national security advisor to Vice-President Dick Cheney and is currently a senior counselor at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Hannah told Kurdistan24, “There are long-standing links between the PKK and the Iranian regime.”

The “most dangerous elements” of the Hashd al-Shaabi are “controlled” by the IRGC, Hannah explained.

“So, it’s entirely possible that there is collusion” between the PKK’s leadership and “the Shia militias operating under Iranian control right now in parts of Iraq and obviously in Syria,” he added.

Dr. Frederick Kagan, a former professor of military history at West Point and currently Director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, described in even starker terms the dangers that Iran now poses, as the protracted fight against IS draws to an end.

“Iraq is more thoroughly integrated into the regional Iranian security system than it has ever been as an independent country,” Kagan warned.

“There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Iraqis fighting in Syria under the command of the [IRGC],” he said.

Kagan believes the US has been so “myopically focused” on fighting IS that it has failed to seriously consider how to address the challenge Iran and its proxies pose.

He noted the prominent positions that “leaders of Shia death squads,” heavily involved in Iraq’s sectarian warfare a decade ago, now hold within the Iraqi government. That “basically dooms the prospect of sectarian stabilization in Iraq as long as that goes on.”

 

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany

(Kurdistan24 team in Washington, DC conducted the interviews)