US risks further clashes as Syrian boot print broadens
Tunis - Condemnation, criticism and, inevitably, escalation have quickly followed a US air strike against an apparently Iranian-backed militia convoy near Syria’s border with Jordan and Iraq.
The clash has, at least, provided analysts with some indication of American aspirations in Syria and, as the United States increases its military commitment in the area, some indication of the risks it runs of banging heads with other international actors active on Syria’s battle-scarred ground.
US commanders said the convoy of Iranian-supported militia ignored numerous calls for it to halt as it moved towards coalition positions at al-Tanf, justifying the strike that destroyed a number of vehicles and killed several militiamen.
However, for Iran and its allies in Moscow and Damascus, the strike marked an aerial “aggression” by the US-led coalition and provided evidence of the West’s neo-colonial ambitions within Syria.
News of the militia’s encroachment on the coalition forces training base at al-Tanf was not new. Four days prior to the strike, Britain’s Daily Telegraph ran a report confirming that pro-regime troops were within about 24km of the British- and US-operated training hub.
As Western military visibility in Syria grows, so, too, does the suspicion that it provokes. On the same day as the air strike, while making no mention of the attack itself, the semi-official Iranian Fars news agency, referred to a British, Jordanian and US plot to create a buffer zone in the area, like that at the Golan Heights and leading ultimately to the potential invasion of Syria under the pretext of a war against ISIS.
In response, Fars reported, “thousands of Hezbollah troops were sent to al-Tanf passageway at Iraq-Syria bordering areas to prepare the Syrian army and its allies for thwarting the US plots.”
Despite the stakes involved, the decision to fire on the Iranian militia looks to have been a local one. “The war in Syria is much less micromanaged from the White House than it used to be, and there is a weak interagency process as is,” said Faysal Itani, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “What this means is the military is much more likely to improvise and this decision to hit the regime may have been taken at the lower levels. In fact, I believe it was.”
While the reasons to call the strike on the advancing column appear to be in keeping with US military objectives on the ground, the diplomatic fallout has been far-reaching. The day after the strike, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov slammed the action as “totally unacceptable” and a “violation of Syrian sovereignty.”
However, as US numbers and Iranian suspicions in Syria increase, so, too, does the likelihood of confrontations. In March, the Washington Post reported the deployment of a task force of regular forces in addition to the “several hundred” special operations troops present near ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa, gathering ahead of the much-anticipated attack against the city.
Analysts cautioned against conflating the hostility in al-Tanf with US support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Raqqa. “I would treat separately the matter of arming the Kurds directly,” Itani said. “I think this move is fully in line with their pre-existing strategy of fighting ISIS through the SDF.”
Irrespective of where responsibility for the clash at al-Tanf may lie, the US presence in Syria looks to continue to grow in assertiveness. Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, said: “What we are seeing now, with the US decision to directly arm the Kurds and to conduct the air strike against Hezbollah forces threatening America’s Arab armed opposition partners near al-Tanf, is the Trump administration sending the strong signal that the United States will do what must be done to beat ISIS, on American terms.”
US support for its partners in Syria appears to be unequivocal. “The Trump administration has decided to double down on expanding the US role in Syria and that will mean an American military investment on the ground inside of Syria for years to come,” Heras said.