Images and Maps behind Iran's 'Land Bridge'
The Jerusalem Post
Airstrikes in Iraq between July 19 and August 20 are
attempts to interdict Iran's "land bridge" that stretches across Iraq
and Syria to Lebanon. This was the assessment published by ImageSat
International on August 22. "The Iranian land bridge from Tehran
to Syria and Lebanon is under attack in Iraq."
The history of Iran's land bridge go back many years.
Allegations that Iran is constructing a swath of influence from Iran
to Lebanon to link up with its Hezbollah ally, grew as Iran
consolidated its influence in Iraq and Syria in the last decades. This was
particularly true after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the rise of
ISIS gave Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps an excuse to intervene in
Iraq and Syria. Working closely with Shi'ite paramilitaries in Iraq, the Syrian
regime and Hezbollah, Iran's influence grew.
How to interpret that influence? One of the early reports
to examine it as a "road to the sea" was Martin
Chulov in October 2016. He argued that Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias
in Iraq were using the war on ISIS to drive on of Iran's "most coveted
projects, securing an arc of influence across Iraq and Syria." A map
accompanying his article showed Iran's influence going through Baquba, Shirqat,
Sinjar, Qamishli to Kobani and then Idlib, Homs and the sea. This was
interesting because it showed areas under control of the Kurdish People's
Protection Units (YPG), a group in Syria that was working with the US to fight
Islamic State, as key to the route. In December 2016 an article at The
Tower by Hanin
Ghaddar called the bridge a part of Iran's attempt to control Syria,
Iraq and Lebanon.
In May 2017 Chulov wrote
that Iran had changed the course of its road to the Mediterranean coast "to
avoid US forces." The new route would go through Tel Afar near Mosul and
then to Mayadin and Deir ez-Zor in Syria before crossing the desert to Damascus
and continuing to Latakia.
Iran's alleged project received an increasing spotlight in
2017 as the war on ISIS appeared to wind down. After Iraqi federal forces,
backed by Shi'ite militias, retook Kirkuk and Sinjar from the autonomous
Kurdistan Regional Government in October 2017, Iran seemed to gain more
influence. An October 2017 article at Strategic Assessment by Franc
Milburn analyzed possible routes of the land bridge. His report
included a map showing three routes that Iran was using, one through Baghdad and
then Syria's Tanf, another through Baghdad and Al-Qaim on the Syrian border and
a third through Kirkuk and then northeast Syria.
Al-Nidawi at The Washington Institute for Near East Studies argued that
the land corridor was not as much of a concern as others were
presenting it. He noted it had been in place for years and might not be Iran's
A November 2017 piece at The Jerusalem Post by Jonathan
Spyer noted that "Iran puts finishing touches on its land bridge
to the Golan." The article asserted that Shi'ite militias had crossed the
border from Iraq to Syria to fight ISIS near Albukamal. A second November 2017
article by Hussein
Ibish in The National also concluded that Iran's land
bridge was moving "closer to reality."
As the war on ISIS continued in 2018 questions about Iran's
goals remained. In July 2018 a group of pro-Assad fighters sought to threaten
US-led coalition forces in Tanf. They were warned off with an airstrike. An
article at Kurdistan24 said
a "shadow" war was being fought against Iran's land bridge, and
pointed to a mysterious June 2018 airstrike against a base of the Iraqi Shi'ite
Kata'ib Hezbollah in Syria near the Iraqi border. The decision by US President
Donald Trump in December 2018 to withdraw from Syria appeared to strengthen
Iran's land bridge ambitions.
In March 2019 the Center for Strategic and International
Studies published a study, "War
by Proxy: Iran's Growing Footprint in the Middle East," by Seth Jones,
with satellite images of an IRGC Quds Force base near Tehran and other aspects
of the land bridge. This report looked at several possible routes, one in the
north through eastern Syria and another in the south through Tanf. With US
forces in both places, the Iranians had to go through the center at Al-Qaim and
Albukamal on the Syria-Iraq border. This study also included an image of
training facilities in Lebanon and alleged. Israeli air strikes in Syria.
In May 2019 an article at Al-Monitor by Joe
Macaron asked if the Trump administration would seek to abort Iran's
land bridge. This came amid rising Iran-US tensions.
for Defense of Democracies looked closely at the land bridge in June
2019. David Adesnik, H.R McMaster and Behnam Ben Taleblu argued that the
"concept of a land bridge has become integral to Washington's assessment of
Tehran's strategic objectives." The study looked at the history of
different routes of the corridor of influence Iran was constructing.
"Disrupting the land bridge should be one important objective within a
A subsequent map run by Al-AinArabic
media also showed elements of Iran's corridor of influence. A map with an
article run in mid-August showed Iran seeking a corridor through Baghdad and
Syria. It also alleged Iran's influence in Nineveh Plains near Mosul was
International has done its own work on the land bridge. In June 2018 it
published images and a map of "Iranian land bridge from Tehran to Syria and
Lebanon. It showed a route through Baghdad that enters Syria either through Al-Qaim
or Tanf and then goes through Damascus to Lebanon. It looked at attempts by Iraq
and Syria to reconstruct the border crossing near Al-Qaim and Albukamal and the
establishment of an Iraqi Shi'ite militia headquarters in Syria.
The report said there was a presence of Iranians and
Shi'ites and that an "Iranian intelligence delegation" and elements of
the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units from Iraq had visited the area on
June 30, 2018. Structures linked to the PMU had been destroyed in an airstrike
on June 18, 2018.
In May 2019 new images from ImageSat
International were published that showed Iran building a new crossing
into Syria. The report, at Fox News, noted that the Iranian land bridge was
being constructed and that Albukamal was essential to it. This appears to be the
context of the ImageSat
International satellite images published on August 22 after several
airstrikes in Iraq. The New York Times has said some of the
airstrikes were carried out by Israel. The ImageSat International images show
Camp Falcon south of Baghdad, struck on August 12, Amerli north of Baghdad,
struck on July 19, and a PMU base struck on August 20 near Balad. The map, the
same as the one published in June 2018 by ImageSat, shows that the Land bridge
is "under attack in Iraq."
The maps, images and reports paint a clear picture of
Iran's emerging ambitions, but also show that the map of the road to the sea has
changed a bit over time. The initial assertions of a northern and southern route
have now generally been abandoned in favor of a more clear assessment of the
central route, complete with images and evidence of infrastructure under
construction. Question remain about whether this land corridor is a corridor of
influence, or one of weapons trafficking, or part of a wider permanent trade
route that will combine Iranian-backed militias with alliances on the ground and
a kind of highway of power stretching to Lebanon. Whether several airstrikes
will interdict it remains to be seen.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor,
a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East
Center for Reporting and Analysis.