ERBIL, Iraq—Kurds in both Iraq and Syria are watching carefully the new ascendance of Iran amid decreasing U.S. influence in the region. The pivotal moment came when Iran-backed Iraqi forces took the town of Kirkuk from Kurds on October 16 and Iranian-backed proxies were able to establish a potential Iranian land bridge through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.
The Syrian government and Iranian-backed proxies on Thursday claimed they had liberated the town of Abu Kamal. If this holds true, it’s a huge setback for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that were planning to capture the town to prevent the Iranian land bridge after liberating Raqqa, formerly the capital of the so-called Islamic State.
The sudden move was enabled by Iraqi forces, including the Iranian backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) that took the Iraqi town of al Qaim on November 3, and crossed the border, ending the race between the U.S.-backed SDF forces and the Syrian government.
Syrian journalist Saad al Sabr told The Daily Beast that Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Iraqi Hezbollah played a major role in the operations in Abu Kamal.
However, PMU spokesperson Karim Nouri denied that PMU units crossed the border. “Hashd Al-Sha'abi [PMU] stopped on the Syrian border in the town of al Qaim,” he said. “There are Iraqi fighters there fighting alongside the Syrian army, but they have nothing to do with the Hashd Al-Sha'abi,” he added.
He also denied accusations that Iran will open a land bridge through Iraq to Syria. “Iran cannot open a land route through the Hashd Al-Sha'abi or any other side, to cross into Syria,” he said. “This is scare-mongering.”
Nevertheless, Western diplomats seem to see the recent developments as a major win by Iran. “This would complete the main Southern land corridor—with work on the northern ones ongoing. It's weird how quietly we all seem to be accepting the fact,” one well-informed Western diplomat told The Daily Beast.
“These corridors won't only act as resupply routes and direct access to the Mediterranean Sea,” the official added. “They divide Syria and prevent any of the non pro-Iranian territories or groups from linking up with each other. It's the perfection of the Persian divide and rule mastery.”
The effect greatly undermines U.S. policy in both Iraq and Syria, a point confirmed, in its way, by the joint statement of Russia and the United States on Saturday essentially embracing Russian strategy for Syria.
The Iranian victories through proxies raise fears among Syrian and Iraqi Kurds that Iran wants to dismantle any form of Kurdish autonomy in both countries. “Abu Kamal's fall is less about a nail in the coffin of ISIS than the latest chapter in the forging of Iranian hegemony in the region,” Amb. Alberto Fernandez, a former U.S. State Department official, told The Daily Beast. “It is one key part of a broader effort to consolidate power before there is a possible American countermove.”
Fernandez noted that Iranian-backed groups have taken over the oil-rich disputed territories in Iraq, including Kirkuk, since the Kurdish Regional Government’s ill-conceived independence referendum. Iran completely exploited the situation to expand its own influence. “Of course, nationalist Iraqi feelings were a real part of it, but there is an obvious Iranian hand in the move against the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] as there is in events in Syria and Lebanon.”
Despite all this, the U.S. still firmly supports the Iraqi government and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, whom the West sees as an Iraqi nationalist. The hope is that he will rein in Iranian influence after his possible re-election in April next year.
The Iraqi Kurds blame the West and especially the United States and Britain for enabling Iran as it cements its role and claims that Iraqi PM Abadi only plays a minor role in recent operations against the Kurds. This, while Baghdad maintains it played the major role in the pushback against the Iraqi Kurds.
“There is a program to create a Shia crescent from Iran through Iraq, Syria to the south of Lebanon,” Kemal Kerkuki, a Kurdish Peshmerga commander who withdrew his forces from Kirkuk in mid October but whose forces fought the Iran-backed Iraqi proxies. “Iran supervised the plan [to take Kirkuk], and unfortunately some Western countries were aware of this,” he said.
Also, Syrian Kurds say that Iran now feels more emboldened after the U.S. failed to support the Kurds in Iraq, and will try to push the Syrian government to attack the U.S.-backed forces that are attempting to build a federation in northern Syria with what they hope is U.S. support.
“Iran is pushing them, recently [Syrian officials] are speaking in a more threatening way, especially after the referendum in the Kurdistan region,” says Farhad Patiev, a representative of the Syrian Kurds in Moscow.
“If Iran’s position strengthens, there is a bigger threat to the SDF,” he added. “They want to have a central state, and they are now preparing for Raqqa, that is absolutely a danger for us,” he said. “Iran is now trying to move its battle with Saudi Arabia into areas controlled by SDF.”
For their part, SDF officials say they will fight back, unlike many of the Iraqi Kurds who withdrew from most of the territories disputed between the Kurds and Baghdad.
“There is a prospect that the Iranian and Iraqi militias are entering Abu Kamal city, but if there are any attempts to attack our forces, the SDF will have the right to respond and defend themselves,” Ehmed Dadeli, an SDF official in Syria who works closely with the U.S.-led coalition forces, told The Daily Beast.
“Assad wants all of his country back and does not want to cede any more territory to the U.S.-backed forces. Assad fears a long term U.S. presence in Syria more than he fears anything else,” says Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
The recent offensives by the government of Bashar Assad and its Iranian allies, are to deny the U.S. “more real estate on the monopoly board that is civil war Syria,” and also to grab as much land in eastern Syria as possible.
U.S. officials say they will continue to support the SDF.
“While we do not discuss current or future operations, we can tell you that in Syria we will continue to support our SDF partners on the ground as they provide security that enables stabilization assistance to liberated areas,” says Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesperson for the U.S. backed anti-ISIS coalition.
“This will allow people to voluntarily return to their homes and rebuild after Daesh [ISIS],” he said. “The Coalition remains committed to working with all Syrian people to support a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian conflict, one that can bring about a more representative and peaceful Syria, free of terrorism.”