Shadowy battle over Iran’s ‘Land Bridge’ continues

Control of one or both of those border crossings—al-Tanf or Albu Kamal—would serve Tehran in its bid to create a strategic corridor stretching through friendly territory, all the way to Lebanon.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan24) – A British Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter jet bombed a shadowy force loyal to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad which threatened coalition troops around al-Tanf some ten days ago, The Sunday Times of London reported.

Al-Tanf is a strategically located town near Syria’s border with Iraq and Jordan. US and British Special Forces use the fortified garrison there to train an Arab partner force, the Maghawir al-Thawra (MaT, Commandos of the Revolution), to fight the Islamic State (IS).

Al-Tanf sits astride the main highway linking Baghdad and Damascus and, by extension, Iran and the Mediterranean.

It is one of three major border crossings between Syria and Iraq.

Another border crossing lies in the north, where Kurds in Iraq and Syria live in close proximity. They are not particularly friendly to Tehran, and it is not optimal territory for an Iranian transit route.

A third border crossing, Albu Kamal, is located some 300 kilometers northeast of al-Tanf. Like al-Tanf, Albu Kamal is in an Arab area.

Control of one or both of those border crossings—al-Tanf or Albu Kamal—would serve Tehran in its bid to create a strategic corridor stretching through friendly territory, all the way to Lebanon.

The establishment of such an Iranian land bridge to the Mediterranean has been a concern for several parties, particularly Israel.

That al-Tanf and Albu Kamal have both been targets of bombing raids in recent weeks suggests a quiet, intensifying conflict over an Iranian route to Lebanon.

The RAF jet dropped one 500-pound laser-guided bomb on June 21, following an incident in which, what Britain’s Ministry of Defense described as an “unidentified force,” fired on MaT fighters and coalition advisers. A Syrian army officer was killed and seven others were wounded, the Times reported.

Five days before, on June 17, forces loyal to Syria and Iran in Albu Kamal were targeted, apparently by Israeli planes. They included elements from Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—militias, mostly Shi’ite, mobilized to fight IS.

The PMF has been formally incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), although the PMF includes Iranian-backed militias that, ten years ago, were involved in killing US forces in Iraq.

Kata’ib Hizbollah is one such organization. It, and its leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were designated by the US Treasury Department in 2009, as threats to the coalition and to Iraq’s peace and stability.

Now Muhandis is deputy commander of the PMF, and his organization, Kata’ib Hizbollah, is formally part of the ISF.

In the June 17 strike on Albu Kamal, 22 fighters from Kata’ib Hizbollah were killed. The command of the ISF denied that they were in Albu Kamal on Iraqi orders, but earlier reports suggest otherwise.

Albu Kamal lies across the border from the Iraqi town of al-Qaim. On February 23, the Iran Observed Project of Washington’s Middle East Institute, reported that Iraq’s Interior Minister had announced that Baghdad “is planning on opening the al-Qaim-Albu Kamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria,” and the PMF “will play a role in maintaining security” on the border.

The report described the quiet race to control Albu Kamal between the US and its partner, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the one hand, and Syria, Iran, and their partners, on the other.

“What helped the pro-Damascus forces to reach Albu Kamal first and encircle the area,” the Iran Observed Project explained, “was the entry of Iranian-backed Iraqi militiamen into Albu Kamal from the Iraqi side.”

“Iran-linked Iraqi groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba had participated in the liberation of the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim,” it reported, so it was easy for them to move on Albu Kamal.

After the June 17 strike on Albu Kamal, US Spokespersons followed Baghdad’s line in claiming that the forces killed there had not been under Iraqi orders.

However, al-Muhandis asserted otherwise. “We tell the Americans that we as the [PMF], including all of its formations, we follow the Iraqi government,’ he said in a statement. “We won’t remain silent on hitting us.”

Muhandis also had a warning for the Iraqi government. “Remaining silent on this incident, saying that that position is outside of Iraqi territory, hence we have nothing to do with it, is forfeiting the blood of our martyrs.”