For several years, Western analysts have warned that the Islamic Republic plans to use its intervention in the Syrian civil war, together with its fight against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, to establish an overland route connecting its own territory to Lebanon and the Golan. If the plan succeeds, Tehran would have the unrestricted ability to send troops and materiel to Israel’s borders, magnifying the threat currently posed by Hizballah. Alexandra Gutowski fears that a current American campaign against an IS stronghold in eastern Syria might be abetting this strategy:
[The U.S.-led coalition’s] airstrikes indicate that Islamic State maintains a robust presence in Abu Kamal, a critical position along the Syria-Iraq border that Iran seeks to control. . . . Curiously, despite these concentrated strikes, U.S.-backed forces will not be conducting a follow-on ground offensive there. The coalition has limited its ground offensives to areas north of the Euphrates River, in order to preserve the deconfliction [agreement] between the coalition and the [pro-Assad] axis: the Syrian government, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Shiite militias. Thus, the coalition is . . . effectively ceding Abu Kamal to Iran.
Iran is eager to capture Abu Kamal to secure a land route over Iraq and Syria toward Lebanon. Although Iran has a robust air bridge to supply its foreign wars, an overland route is more reliable and less expensive. Iran has worse odds at the other two crossings: Tanf, where the United States has positioned its special forces, and a northern crossing under Kurdish control.
Whereas those two crossings would be difficult to conquer, the only thing standing between Iran and a secure overland route at Abu Kamal is Islamic State. . . . Iranian forces are already present in Abu Kamal and are using it to facilitate weapons flows. On June 17, an Israeli airstrike killed members of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who were training militias on how to transfer weapons in the area. Additional Iranian forces—those leaving Syria’s southwest—could also be redeployed there.