The corridor that goes westward from Mosul, crossing the unstable Syrian border and leading to Damascus from there, is now the heart of the Middle East war.
The imminent defeat of ISIS in Mosul (the Iraqi army has freed most of the city and is now fighting for the last four square kilometers) and Raqqa (where the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, have surrounded the “capital” of the Caliphate on three sides) will leave room for a regional settling of accounts.
This settling is being negotiated at the tables of Middle East diplomacy where Trump was seated with full honors: The enemy is Iran and the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus corridor.
The table is being set by the Sunni front, to which the new U.S. administration has provided the necessary weaponry ($110 billion in sales contracts with Riyadh). Weapons have never been denied in the past and, with them, the petro-monarchies have promoted the jihadist activities.
Weapons are also being delivered to the Syrian opposition forces, stationed on the border between Syria and Iraq. They were summoned by Washington to prevent the passage of the Shiite militias, connected to the Iraqi government and Tehran, on this side of the border.
On Monday, those militias marked a crucial point in the war on al-Baghdadi: They have taken over the Iraqi town of Baaj, in the northwest of the country, a desert area where it is suspected the “Caliph” has been hiding in recent years and from where the al-Qaim pass is accessible.
The last pockets of militant Islamists fled in the night between Saturday and Sunday. This allowed the entry of the Shiites, who hoisted the Iraqi flag. A victory with an immense symbolic value. The Iraqi air force, the official ally of the U.S., covered the advance of the Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) — yet another contradiction.
The corridor has become a powder keg with a tangle of forces operating there. There’s Turkey, which wants to create a buffer zone from northern Iraq to northern Syria, cleared of the PKK presence. There’s the Kurdish Workers Party, which has liberated yazidi Sinjar and now maintains those positions. There’s the Iraqi Kurdistan of President Barzani, an ally of Ankara, who last month sent peshmerga units to attack the PKK. And there’s Iran, which aims to cross the border in support of Syrian President Assad.
It is no coincidence that the last U.S. air operations were deployed in the Badia area, on Syria’s eastern border, where there are 3,000 Hezbollah men and where Iraqi Shiite militias aim to squeeze through. On May 18, a U.S. raid struck Shia positions in Badia, the first in a series of warnings to Damascus to evacuate its allies.
The SDF are also opposed to the Iraqi Shiite intervention: “We will reject any attempt by the Iraqi Shiite militias to enter the territories controlled by our forces, and we will not allow anyone to enter Syria,” said the SDF spokesperson, Talal Salu.
Baghdad hinted as much on Monday when Prime Minister al-Abadi said the combined forces of the army will not intervene across national boundaries, nor do they plan to undermine the security of other countries.
Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the PMU deputy commander, closely linked to Tehran, confirmed this. On Monday, he announced the liberation of Baaj. “We will leave the security tasks in the border area to the Iraqi police,” he said. The PMU spokesman, Ahmad al-Asadi, added: “The participation of any Iraqi armed force beyond our borders requires a parliamentary vote.”
Baghdad is trying to throw water on the fire, but the Sunni front is throwing gasoline. The latter wants to take advantage of Trump’s itch for war. Their strategy is wide: sending new weapons to the militiamen on the field; pretending to fight the jihadi metastasis, which in reality is only being confronted by Kurds and Shiite militias; and pointing a finger at the Shiite axis when the whole world is affected by a transnational Islamist network bribed for years by the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The consequences will come soon: a renewed conflict on the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields. The states are destined to fail, with millions of displaced people and societies ravaged by sectarian divisions.