Yesterday marked the third anniversary of UK military action in Syria and the important role our armed forces have played pushing ISIS to the brink of defeat as a territorial entity in Syria and Iraq. Although a weakened ISIS is to be celebrated, its decline as a military force is an opportunity to assess the dangerous new reality in Syria and attempt to prevent more conflict in the Middle East.
For President Assad, the fight against Islamic State was never his top priority. Since 2011 he maintained a ruthless focus on clinging to power, whatever the cost and whatever the means. The barbarity of Islamic State proved a useful distraction for Assad as he and his allies butchered civilians and deployed chemical weapons. Now that Islamic State is weakened, we should be, in Prime Minister Theresa May's words, 'clear eyed and vigilant' about Iran's role in the region. The recent de-escalation agreements sponsored by Russia significantly strengthen the Assad regime but more importantly they provide new opportunities for Assad's allies, Iran and its proxy militia Hezbollah, with potentially alarming consequences for regional stability.
Under the cover of the Syrian civil war, Iran has been working to create a land corridor stretching from its own territory through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. There is mounting evidence that Iran is planning a long-term military deployment in Syria involving military bases, airfields and even a seaport. It is also developing a clandestine military industry and supply network that will incorporate underground weapons factories in Lebanon to produce state of the art missiles for Hezbollah.
Iran could tighten control of this corridor using the assets at its disposal including political, military and economic influence over Lebanon and Iraq, as well as the Syrian regime. It would be able to command tens of thousands of Shiite militia fighters from as far afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan - fighting under the command or guidance of the IRGC's Quds Force in Iraq and Syria.
This amounts to the creation of an Iranian hegemony in the heart of the Middle East spanning across Iraq and the Levant to the Mediterranean and even potentially reaching Shiite communities in the Gulf (in Bahrain, Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia) and southern Syria, facing Israel and Jordan.
As the fog of war clears in Syria, the battle lines of the next Middle East conflict are taking shape, and they could be devastating. Israeli military planners now believe that in a future war with Hezbollah, Israel could face a unified Syrian and Lebanese front acting in tandem, directed by Iran, manned by battle hardened Hezbollah fighters deploying advanced weapons systems and logistics. Something it has never faced before.
Addressing the challenge of Iranian influence in Syria requires a pro-active strategy by the UK and US, as well as by Russia. But the signs are not encouraging. The Trump Administration is narrowly focused on defeating ISIS and has ceded a dominant role to Russia in Syria. The US and the UK must make a choice. They could play a vital role to address Iran's drive for regional dominance, or they can look the other way. They could scale down all their military operations after the defeat of ISIS or they could maintain their assets currently deployed to demonstrate to Iran that they will take action to block its advance.
One future flashpoint is the al-Tanaf military base where US, UK and rebel forces are currently deployed along the Syria-Iraq-Jordan triangle. Along with Western air assets, this deployment stands in the way of the planned Iranian corridor. Withdrawing them all after the defeat of ISIS would be a gift to Iran and lay the foundation for the next bloody conflict to consume the Middle East.
The US and UK are not alone. They have willing regional partners who share their concerns about Iran's plans including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and even potentially the Kurds. If Theresa May is serious about her ambition for a closer partnership with the Gulf states in a post-Brexit world and her close ties with Israel then now is the time to make a stand and demand the evacuation from Syria of all non-Syrian militias and a significant withdrawal of Iranian forces.
It is not too late to counter Iran in the post-ISIS era. Failure to act now will have devastating consequences for the future of the region.
You can read BICOM's new research paper Southern Syria: how to stop the Iranian plan for regional dominance here.