By: Kailey Pickitt, Guest Contributor
Photo by: Hudson Institute
At a Pentagon press conference last month, reporters questioned Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about the status of Iran’s so-called “land bridge.” The bridge, a territorial corridor that connects Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria, is one of Tehran’s more important strategic priorities. “I don’t think there’s a land bridge right now,” Mattis said, in a likely attempt to dodge the question.[i] Though the bridge is not technically complete, Mattis’s position ignores the reality of Iran’s significant regional expansion. Moreover, it illustrates the Trump administration’s struggle to address how the Iranian land bridge exacerbates other threats, such as Tehran’s nuclear program.
Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Tehran has employed a variety of strategies to spread its radical ideology and Shiite identity throughout the region.[ii] Iran must physically connect Tehran to Beirut to dominate the Middle East. The ability to achieve regional hegemony hinges on Iran’s close access to its proxy organizations. From there, Iran seeks to forge a common identity through the creation of a noncontiguous, Shiite “nation.” Currently, US strategy toward Iran does not adequately address Tehran’s territorial ambitions. Failure to develop a plan that tackles all aspects of the Iranian threat, including the land bridge, will undoubtedly lead to an escalation in the Iranian-Israeli conflict — and consequently, cause further regional instability.
The outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 threatened the Assad regime, a well-known Iranian proxy. However, the U.S. and its international coalition support of Syrian rebels, including the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), prolonged the conflict, presenting Iran with an opportunity to expand its regional influence. Following the fall of Raqqa, the former capital of ISIS’s caliphate, pro-Iranian, Iraqi Shia militias flowed into Syria to assist Assad’s forces. Iran seized control of Iraqi-Syrian border territories, establishing a deeper presence in Syria and building a critical first piece of their land bridge.[iii] In subsequent years, while the international community was focused on fighting the Islamic State, Iran fortified its Shiite territory within Syria. Today, the land bridge is nearly complete, with the exception of a few heavily contested territories. In November 2017, Qasem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander, was spotted near Abu Kamal, one of the most valuable contested areas on the Syrian-Iraqi border. His presence suggests that Iran is at least focused on, if not close to, cementing its hold on another key component of the land bridge.[iv]
Iran seeks to gain a number of strategic, economic, and ideological advantages from its westward push. An uninterrupted presence through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon would enable Tehran to fluidly funnel financial and military support to Hezbollah, a key proxy, as well as other IRGC-directed militias. This presence would provide Iran with many more opportunities to attack Israel. Currently, Iraqi oil, a vital part of Iran’s Syrian reconstruction plan, must pass through SDF-controlled territory.[v] An Iranian-controlled, continuous route would decrease the cost, while simultaneously accelerating the delivery, of oil to Syria. Arguably the most significant benefit of the land bridge, however, would be the potential to reshape surrounding territories’ national character. A land corridor could create a noncontiguous nation-state under the umbrella of a Shiite identity. Replacing individual Iraqi, Syrian, and Lebanese national identities for one in Iran’s own likeness would enormously strengthen Tehran’s regional influence.
The Trump administration’s new strategy toward Iran signaled a significant shift in US Middle East policy. After years of focusing almost exclusively on the fight against the Islamic State, President Trump announced a new effort to combat Iranian expansion. In his remarks on the new strategy, President Trump strongly criticized Iran’s nuclear weapons program and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – more commonly known as the Iran nuclear agreement.[vi] “As I have said many times,” Trump stated, “the Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”[vii] However, despite announcing a series of actionable steps, including sanctions against the IRGC and a Congressional review of the JCPOA, Trump made no mention of a plan to confront Iran’s creeping land corridor. Senior members of America’s armed forces do not consider Iranian expansion as a valid justification for US military involvement in the region. Colonel Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria, said: “We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business. We are in the killing-ISIS business.”[viii] The US war against the Islamic State, not Iran’s crusade to increase its regional clout, sparked – and continues to sustain – American involvement in eastern Syria.
The collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Syria puts the U.S. at a critical strategic crossroad. Secretary Mattis confirmed that US forces would remain in Syria and would battle the Islamic State “for as long as they want to fight.”[ix] However, the U.S. has yet to develop a clear strategy in Syria. If “ISIS 2.0” does not arise and American forces are left facing only Iranian expansion, what is the future of US involvement in the region? The U.S. needs to construct a Syria policy that reflects the fall of the Islamic State. Furthermore, the U.S. must demonstrate its commitment to combating the territorial ambitions of Iran — a country that, according to Matthew Brodsky, former policy director at Washington D.C.’s Jewish Policy Center, “poses a greater long-term strategic threat to the United States and its allies than does ISIS.”[x]
In a speech last September to the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the prevention of an Iranian military presence in Syria is one of Israel’s top strategic priorities.[xi] In recent years, the Israeli government has issued numerous complaints about the growing power of Hezbollah — and through them, Iran — in both Syria and Lebanon. The U.S. has expressed similar concerns, with President Trump calling Hezbollah a “menace” – a recognition of the threat the terrorist group poses to the region.[xii] However, as Iran continues to solidify its territorial claims in Syria and project power without challenge, the likelihood of conflict between Iran and Israel grows. In a February 2018 speech in Munich, Netanyahu stated: “Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck. We will act if necessary, not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself.” [xiii]
Given the recent increase of Iranian drone activity in Israeli air space, a major conflict between Iran and Israel may no longer be a distant, hypothetical scenario. A proxy war between Hezbollah and Israel would produce instability throughout the Middle East. Ultimately, the U.S. and its allies must create a strategy that counteracts the growth of Tehran’s land bridge. The regional control resulting from a completed land bridge would expand Iranian military and financial support to Hezbollah, intensify the Iran-Israeli conflict, and give Tehran a larger platform to target the West.
[i]James N. Mattis, interview by press, “Media Availability by Secretary Mattis at the Pentagon,” U.S. Department of Defense, transcript, January 5, 2018, https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1409471/media-availability-by-secretary-mattis-at-the-pentagon/.
[ii] Hanin Ghaddar, “The Iranian Empire Is Almost Complete,” The Tower, December 2016, http://www.thetower.org/article/the-iranian-empire-is-almost-complete-hezbollah-syria-lebanon-iraq/.
[iii] Hussein Ibish, “Iran’s long-cherished Tehran to Beirut ‘land-bridge’ moves closer to reality,” The National, November 11, 2017, https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/iran-s-long-cherished-tehran-to-beirut-land-bridge-moves-closer-to-reality-1.674875.
[iv] Josh Rogin, “The U.S. must prepare for Iran’s next move in Syria,” The Washington Post, November 19, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/the-us-must-prepare-for-irans-next-move-in-syria/2017/11/19/c8ee0906-cbc0-11e7-8321-481fd63f174d_story.html?utm_term=.ec36878e7b7f.
[v] Jonathan Spyer, “Iran Completes its Land Bridge to the Golan,” Middle East Forum, November 18, 2017, http://www.meforum.org/7026/iran-completes-land-bridge-to-the-golan.
[vi] Donald Trump, “Remarks by President Trump on Iran Strategy,” The White House, October 13, 2017, transcript, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-iran-strategy/.
[viii] Matthew RJ Brodsky, “Iran’s Challenge to America in Syria,” National Review, June 29, 2017, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/449082/irans-syria-challenge-trumps-foreign-policy-should-confront-iran-syria.
[ix] Phil Stewart, “U.S. to fight Islamic State in Syria ‘as long as they want to fight’: Mattis,” Reuters, November 13, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-usa-syria/u-s-to-fight-islamic-state-in-syria-as-long-as-they-want-to-fight-mattis-idUSKBN1DE037.
[x] Brodsky, “Iran’s Challenge to America in Syria.”
[xi] “Full text of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s UN speech,” Times of Israel, September 19, 2017, https://www.timesofisrael.com/full-text-of-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahus-un-speech/.
[xii] “Remarks by President Trump and Prime Minister Hariri of Lebanon in Joint Press Conference,” U.S. Embassy in Syria, July 25, 2017, transcript, https://sy.usembassy.gov/remarks-president-trump-prime-minister-hariri-lebanon-joint-press-conference/.
[xiii] Oliver Holmes, “Israel ready to act against ‘dangerous’ Iran, Netanyahu warns,” The Guardian, February 18, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/18/netanyahu-israel-ready-act-against-dangerous-iran-munich-speech.