Two Major Battles open Syrian Borders to Iranian Control

By taking the lead on two hot anti-ISIS battlefronts, Iran is rapidly deepening its foothold in the Middle East and gaining control of Syria’s borders.
On Sunday, Aug. 20, Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi announced the onset of an operation for the liberation of Tal Afar, the last Islamic State stronghold in northern Iraq, which lies 60km west of Mosul. (See attached map.)
Tal Afar which prior to the ISIS invasion had a predominantly ethnic Turkmen population of 100,000, is strategically positioned on what was a major jihadist supply route between the Iraqi capital of Mosul and their Syrian center of Raqqa. Today, too, control of the town is the key to commanding Iraq’s northern crossing-points into Syria.
Three Iraqi units are fighting for the town under the command of Iraq’s Lt. Gen Abdul Amir Rashid Yarallah. They are the Federal Police Forces, the Rapid Response Force and the counter-terrorism forces. Those are the same units which spearheaded the conquest of Mosul from ISIS. Together, they number around 30,000 fighting men.
However, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that, in contrast to the Mosul campaign, those Iraqi units have been attached to the Iraqi Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), whose chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is under the direct command of Revolutionary Guards Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, supreme commander of Iran’s Middle East warfronts.
It was the consistency of Tel Afar’s battle lines against ISIS which brought US Defense Secretary James Mattis rushing to Baghdad on Tuesday, Aug. 22, for urgent talks with Abadi.
Clearly, if the PMU gains control of Tal Afar, the Syrian border’s northern sector will be open wide to Iranian military control. They would also command the main routes from northern Iraq and in a position for blocking the overland road links between US forces stationed in the Kurdish regions of northern Syria and the US units deployed in parts of Iraq and the Persian Gulf.
But the Iraqi prime minister sees the PMU handing him the secured town of Tal Afar on a platter as greatly enhancing his own interests, by giving him the means to militarily outflank the semiautonomous Kurdish Republic of northern Iraq and its Peshmerga army. He would then have the edge in the coming confrontation against the independence referendum the Kurds have scheduled for Sept. 25.
Abadi will pay for this advantage by giving the Iranians control of the Iraqi-Syrian border, along with the ability to cut off American supply lines at will and isolate Syrian Kurds from Iraqi Kurdistan.
With this troubling deal in mind, Mattis set off for Irbil to persuade the Kurdish leaders to put their referendum on ice.
The Iranian general is meanwhile pulling the strings for the campaigns the Syrian army and Hizballah are fighting to clear ISIS positions out of the Qalamoun Mountains which lie athwart Syria’s border with Lebanon.
On the other side of the border, the Lebanese army announced Tuesday, Aug. 22 that it had launched the third phase of its broad offensive to capture areas controlled by ISIS on the border with Syria.
Since these operations began on Saturday, Aug. 19, the three allies have captured more than two-thirds of the land occupied by ISIS.
But the small Lebanese army of no more than 20,000 men is not up to holding broad stretches of liberated land on its border with Syria, according to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources. Therefore, as soon as the jihadists are out of the way, the Syrian army and the pro-Iranian Shiite militias along with Hizballah will move in and take over regions on both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border, so delivering to Tehran a prized foothold on yet another Syrian border.

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