"The Iranians will establish their sphere of influence from Iraq through Lebanon." MEDITERRANEAN That is not only because of the imminent fall of Aleppo but also because of the gains the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad - a close ally of Tehran - has made in the battle to retake Mosul from Islamic State, an ultra-hardline Sunni group. Thousands of Shi'ite militia fighters trained by Iran are fighting on the side of the government in Iraq. Some have already fought in Syria to support Assad and pledged to go back if necessary. In Iraq they are battling for control of Tal Afar, a city between Mosul and Iraq's western border with Syria which - if retaken - would allow Iran nearly unfettered military access all the way to the Mediterranean sea. Iran already has a great deal of influence in Lebanon, where it has deep historical ties with the Shi'ite community and funds Hezbollah, the country's most powerful political and military movement, which is also fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad. Establishing such a "Shi'ite crescent" would give Tehran immense political clout in the region as it vies with arch-rival Riyadh and allow it to protect Shi'ite communities in these countries. It would also present a military threat to Israel, through Syria and Lebanon, which Iranian officials regard as a deterrent to any Israeli aggression towards Iran. For Saudi Arabia and other regional Sunni powers, increased Iranian power would come at cost to their own political, military and trading interests. But whether Iran can maintain such a large sphere of influence is uncertain, Khashan said. IRANIAN COMMANDERS From as early as 2012 Iran began arming, training and paying thousands of Afghan and Pakistani fighters, as well as Hezbollah militants from Lebanon, to fight on behalf of Assad, according to diplomats and analysts.

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