Iran Blows a Hole in Mattis’ Campaign to Block Its Iraqi-Syrian Corridor
As US special forces and allies braced for a joint Syrian army-Shiite-Hizballah assault on the Iraqi-Syrian border from the west, a two-part Iranian force broke through the border this week from the northeast.
On Monday, May 25, the Joint Command of the Iraqi Armed Forces crowed that the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) – the pro-Iranian umbrella group of Iraqi militias – had reached the Syrian border crossing in the Nineveh Governate and marched across into Syria for the first time.
(The statement added misleadingly: “With the capture of the border crossing, the Iraqi Armed Forces have assisted the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to secure part of the border shared by Iraq and Syria.”)
They owed their success to Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s tactic of harnessing two ground forces for this surprise trans-border operation, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report.
One force was the PMU, which operates under orders from Tehran – not Baghdad; the other a group of Shammar tribesmen from northern Syria.
No one knows yet how the Sunni tribesmen were drawn into crossing the lines against their traditional sponsors, Saudi Arabia. They were, at all events, the key to Soleimani’s two-handed blitzkrieg on the northern Syrian-Iraqi border from both sides.
The participation of these Sunni Syrian tribesmen for the first time in an Iranian enterprise was only one part of the surprise package which landed on the heads of American strategists.
It was delivered just a week after US President Donald Trump stood up in Riyadh and promised Arab Sunni rulers that the United States would lead an all-out effort to curtail Iranian and pro-Iranian advances in Iraq and Syria.
On the Iraqi side, the PMU dashed at top speed to its target from a point west of the embattled Iraqi town of Mosul, fighting some ISIS forces holding the terrain since 2014 en route, but mostly circling around them (see attached map.).
The American commanders were caught unawares additionally by Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi consent to contribute Iraqi Air Force attack helicopters as cover for the offensive, without giving the game away to the Americans.
On the Syrian side, the force made up mainly of the Shammar tribesmen advanced on the border from the west. Monday, the two forces linked up at the Um Jaris village close to the northern section of the Iraqi-Syrian border northwest of Mosul.
Our sources add that the PMU operation was directed by its commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who is on the US list of designated terrorists and holds the secret rank of Iranian Revolutionary Guards general for his services to Tehran. Muhandis was chosen by his bosses to sit down with the Iraqi prime minister a week ago and clinch a deal for Baghdad’s role in the operation.
The upshot was the first instance of direct Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian military cooperation for an anti-US offensive. It was designed to blow a hole in the plan developed by US Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis for a US-led coalition force to take control of the Syrian Iraqi border and shut down Iran’s coveted overland corridor through Iraq to Syria.
The PMU’s success was bad news for Washington on more than one score:
1. The operation went forward undetected, from first to last, by US intelligence satellites or US commanders on the spot, a poke in the eye for Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commanding General, US Forces in Iraq and Syria, who was caught unawares.
2. Russian intelligence may or may not have been in the picture. This has not been discovered.
3. Up until publication of this issue, nothing is known about decisions in Washington – or even discussions – on how to push back against the Iranian-directed breach of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
The Arab rulers who greeted the US President in Riyadh last week are waiting tensely to see if the US President makes good on his pledges.
The pro-Iranian Iraqi-Syrian-Hizballah drive for the Syrian-Iraqi border is not done yet. Its next stage is revealed in a separate article in this issue.