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Will Iraq’s Shia Militias Cross the Border to Syria?

We will see now if Iraq’s Shia militias – the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) – will cross Iraqi-Syrian borders, potentially from Tel Afar or close to it, under the pretext of chasing ISIL fighters fleeing Iraq in the post-Mosul situation.

ISIL lost the symbolic town of Dabiq after a short battle with the Free Syrian Army and the Turkish-backed “Euphrates Shield” opposition group. ISIL pulled out its fighters from the town overnight and left a small number of its fighters to delay the opposition advance.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime and its allies are making slow progress in the north-east of Aleppo. The regime forces seem to be trying to separate the north and the south parts of the east of Aleppo which is almost completely destroyed by Russian and regime planes. The objective is obviously to reach the Airport though a road that separates the two parts of east Aleppo.

The “Groznization” of Aleppo may end with the regime forces controlling the rubbles of east Aleppo. Assad said October 14 that if the Syrian army’s capture Aleppo, which has come under renewed bombardment in an effort to seize its rebel-held sector, it would be “a very important springboard to pushing terrorists back to Turkey”. “You have to keep cleaning this area and to push the terrorists to Turkey, to go back to where they come from or to kill them. There’s no other option,” Assad said. Rescue workers said that Syria’s military backed by Russian warplanes had killed more than 150 people in eastern Aleppo this week, in support of its offensive against the city.

Is the Syrian President right?

The true nature of the fight for the north of Syria lies beyond east Aleppo. The US, the Turks and Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis are faced now with a clear Iranian-Assad-Hezbollah plan to establish a bridge of land extending from Tel Afar to Raqqah to Aleppo. The IRGC’s plan is quite obvious since the desperate attempts to keep Assad forces in Dair Al Zour, Hasakah, to try in vain to advance to the east through Tabaqa and to take all of Aleppo. It is indeed a race with time. Assad and his Iranian allies are doing their best to make progress to connect the two areas. They are going exactly on the footsteps of ISIL but in the opposite direction.

Iraqi and Lebanese Shia militias are now loudly talking about their “responsibility” to chase ISIL to Raqqa. The Iraqi Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), which some of its groups are run directly by the IRGC, are already eyeing the rout to advance from Iraq to Syria “to chase ISIL”. ISIL has been overused indeed by almost everyone to achieve different sets of objectives.

This scenario may become the major center of attention in few months at most. But the fierce fight to take east Aleppo cannot be reduced to merely taking few square kilometers of rubble. In order to build this strategic belt from Iraq to Syria, the IRGC needs not only to secure the passage itself, but to clear the areas around it. This could be helped by capturing Aleppo’s airport.

This belt is crucially important in as much as it will impact all the major players: Turkey, the Kurds, the Sunni communities in both sides of the borders and the new US bases in Iraq’s Kurdistan and Kurdish-controlled areas of north east Syria. ISIL fighters may move to Syria and then melt among scores of other opposition groups. So long as the fight is interpreted in sectarian terms, ISIL will not vanish. It may change names, change coats, change leaders, and clean as much fingerprints as it can, but it will remain there, somewhere.

If the Iraqi Shia militias move to Syria, the conflict will inch closer to a regional war. Sunni states, namely Turkey and Saudi Arabia, will not stand idle. The Syrian opposition will evolve into a larger entity formed on basis of pure sectarian bases with theological and jurisprudence differences suspended for a later phase.

In other words the fight will move to a different fiercer and more violent phase than anything we have seen up to now.

Then, it is safe to say that the Syrian President was wrong. What will be seen is simply a fight where the forces on the ground will be wilder, and where regional forces play a larger role.

Syria’s crisis is far from over. In fact, it may be just ending its early phase. For the truth is it is not a “Syrian” crisis, it has never been. It started as peaceful revolt by a people seeking democracy and evolved into a major regional battle. It is now knocking on the frightening door of a world confrontation. The next phase will witness a direct confrontation between Iran’s IRGC strategy to pierce into Iraq and Syria in order to reach the East Mediterranean and the strategy of Turkey and the Arab nations to stop the IRGC expansion west.

The only way out, as we repeatedly said, is to work on a regional cohabitation plan. The US has to warn the PMF that if it crosses the Iraqi-Syrian borders, it will become a legitimate target for the coalition against terrorism. Terrorism is not exclusive to ISIL. Some of the groups of the PMF are considered by the State Department as terrorist groups. Simultaneously, the US, Russia and the EU have to come together around a plan to reach an Arab-Iranian modus vivendi and pacify the region. Each of the three parties has their regional leverage. Combined, they can indeed reach a practical equation, implementation plan and arbitration mechanisms.

If this epic fight is left to its own dynamics, it will certainly threaten the whole world.  

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