The Daily Star (Lebanon)

U.S. frozen out of east Syria as Iran takes ini­tia­tive

Strate­gic de­feat for Wash­ing­ton gives Tehran un­in­ter­rupted land ac­cess to Le­banon

- By Daniel Hil­ton

BEIRUT: Whether thanks to hes­i­ta­tion, poor plan­ning or a to­tal lack of strat­egy, U.S. forces have been frozen out of east­ern Syria, with Iran and the Syr­ian regime gladly seizing the ini­tia­tive and se­cur­ing a foothold on the Iraqi bor­der.

Re­mote, sparsely pop­u­lated and seem­ingly un­re­mark­able, the area around Al-Tanf on the Syria-Iraq bor­der has be­come in­creas­ingly strate­gic, as the mil­i­tant group Daesh (ISIS) pre­pares to make its last stand in Syria’s east.

It is in this desert out­post that the United States has been train­ing Syr­ian rebels, ap­par­ently with a view to ex­pand north and put a phys­i­cal U.S. pres­ence in be­tween pro-Iran mili­tias in Iraq and the Daesh-held Euphrates val­ley in Syria.

From here, Wash­ing­ton be­lieved, a Sunni Arab force could be built up to rid the area of Daesh and deny the space to Iran and the Syr­ian regime.

Tehran and Dam­as­cus, how­ever, have pre-empted the U.S. plan and, de­spite three re­cent airstrikes on Ira­nian-backed mili­tias, pro-regime forces Fri­day man­aged to cir­cum­vent the troops at Al-Tanf and reach the Iraqi bor­der.

Now U.S. forces and their rebel al­lies are hemmed in, with the route to the Euphrates val­ley blocked and Tehran now boast­ing an un­in­ter­rupted land cor­ri­dor of in­flu­ence that stretches all the way from Iran to Le­banon.

It is a strate­gic de­feat for Wash­ing­ton. But, says Sam Heller, fel­low at think tank The Cen­tury Foun­da­tion, the U.S. project along the Iraqi bor­der never seemed par­tic­u­larly promis­ing or vi­able in the first place.

“I don’t think that this was a race that they could have won,” he tells The Daily Star. “Not now, short of a ma­jor in­jec­tion of U.S. troops, which I don’t think there’s a lot of po­lit­i­cal ap­petite for.”

Re­sources in Al-Tanf were thin. As few as 300 Syr­ian rebels were present there, along­side some 150 U.S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel.

“That’s enough guys to die but not enough guys to do any­thing,” says Adam Garfin­kle, editor of The Amer­i­can In­ter­est and a Fox Fel­low at the For­eign Pol­icy Re­search In­sti­tute.

Be­lat­edly, the U.S. seems to have re­al­ized that an in­jec­tion of man­power and re­sources into this east­ern area is to its ad­van­tage.

Syr­ian rebels said Wed­nes­day that the U.S. has sent more spe­cial forces into the area, de­liv­ered weapons to its part­ners there and ex­panded out of Al-Tanf to­ward Zakf, about 6070 kilo­me­ters to the north­east.

Mean­while, CNN re­ported that a High Mo­bil­ity Ar­tillery Rocket Sys­tem was moved into Al-Tanf from Jor­dan, greatly in­creas­ing the U.S. forces’ fire­power. It is likely too lit­tle too late. Garfin­kle says the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ob­ses­sion with de­feat­ing Daesh in its Syr­ian strong­hold Raqqa, where a U.S.-backed force is bat­tling the mil­i­tant group, has dis­tracted it from the the­ater of last­ing sig­nif­i­cance, east­ern Syria, con­trol of which will have im­pli­ca­tions all over the re­gion.

And now Iran and the Syr­ian regime have the ini­tia­tive and ac­cess to Iraq from Syria for the first time in three years.

For Iran and its al­lies, the sym­bol­ism of this break­through has been huge.

Ira­nian me­dia cir­cu­lated images of head of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard’s elite Al-Quds Force Qasem Soleimani pray­ing along­side Afghan mili­ti­a­men on the bor­der, a mes­sage of de­fi­ance to the U.S. and those at­tempt­ing to stop Tehran from hav­ing con­tin­ual land ac­cess to the Mediter­ranean.

Such ac­cess has long been feared by Iran’s en­e­mies, but El­lie Ger­an­mayeh, se­nior pol­icy fel­low at the Euro­pean Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, says its im­por­tance shouldn’t be overblown.

“Any­one look­ing at this is­sue and the sig­nif­i­cance of the land cor­ri­dor needs to bear in mind that Iran al­ready has good ac­cess,” she tells The Daily Star.

Yet it is per­haps sig­nif­i­cant that high-level talks be­tween of­fi­cials from Syria and Iraq, both largely de­pen­dent on Ira­nian sup­port, were held in Bagh­dad Wed­nes­day on bor­der se­cu­rity and fight­ing Daesh.

In terms of bat­tling the mil­i­tant group, where Iran, the Syr­ian regime and the U.S. go from here is un­cer­tain. Push­ing deeper into the Euphrates River val­ley and Deir alZor, which are “denser and likely to be bet­ter de­fended by [Daesh] than some of these more pe­riph­eral and re­mote ar­eas,” is not nec­es­sar­ily a fight the Syr­ian regime and Iran­backed forces want to en­gage in now, ac­cord­ing to Heller.

And oc­cu­py­ing an area wrought with eth­nic, tribal and sec­tar­ian con­sid­er­a­tions is no easy task. “Man­ag­ing the ter­ri­tory af­ter a mil­i­tary vic­tory is a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity and test for all sides,” Ger­an­mayeh says.

“We shouldn’t un­der­es­ti­mate nor over­es­ti­mate Iran’s ca­pac­ity.”

How­ever, once bat­tles rag­ing else­where are con­cluded – such as in Deraa and Raqqa – eyes will quickly turn east and troops and re­sources will be freed up for the flash­point bor­der area.

If ten­sions con­tinue to heat up in this desert re­gion, con­fronta­tion be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Tehran could be around the cor­ner.

“In terms of what hap­pens mov­ing for­ward, I am a bit con­cerned that this is po­ten­tially a hot spot where U.S. forces and Ira­ni­an­backed forces could get into tit-for­tat ex­changes,” Ger­an­mayeh says, “and that could es­ca­late.”

 ??  ?? For Iran and its al­lies, the sym­bol­ism of this break­through has been huge.
For Iran and its al­lies, the sym­bol­ism of this break­through has been huge.

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