30 November 2017
The Anbar Desert – by Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai
The Syrian war is coming to an end but is soon to be replaced by a war of another kind, more precise and difficult, a war between the neighbouring countries and those countries operating on Syrian territory. This concerns countries with interests and ambitions in the area, such as the United States, Turkey, Iran and Israel.
These countries are trying to establish equations and balances that enable them in an attempt to remain in the Levant to achieve their goals. The fundamental difference is that only Iran has a strong ally within this equation, an ally that stood tall through many years of war when everyone had bet on his fall in the first weeks or months: the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
America and Syria:
The United States has clearly defined its policy in Syria, and will try to achieve it but it has slim chances of success.
As the war did not completely end against the “Islamic State” (ISIS) group in Syria, US forces have installed a state of coexistence with this terrorist organisation, remaining under US protection (Russia is not allowed to cross the US operational area). This is possible as long as ISIS doesn’t attack the US forces or their proxy Kurds and Arabs fighting together under the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) flag.
The US forces have halted strikes over the areas east of the Euphrates River, controlled by “ISIS”. The group will not be attacked as long as its forces are planning assaults only in the direction of the Syrian army and its allies. However, the US has kept its drones – according to sources at the Hameimim base – over areas east of the river to monitor ISIS without interfering in its movement within a limited area. Unless the occasion presents itself to hit identified foreign fighters considered a valuable catch (estimate the source), US drones will keep circling the sky of Syria over ISIS and the Syrian allies in the area.
What has happened in recent weeks indicates that the US has allowed ISIS to move freely within the area under US control and gather its forces to attack and slow down the advance of the Syrian forces and its allies (Iranian IRGC, Iraqi Nujaba’ and Lebanese Hezbollah) towards Albu Kamal and try in vane to stop the liberation of the city.
The US policy contradicts the objectives for which the US-led multinational forces landed in Syria to fight terrorism. Washington is acting as an occupation force in accordance with its own interests: this sometimes requires the protection of ISIS forces. These can be manipulated and directed by delineating red lines and lines through which it can move without being attacked. The elimination of terrorism seems no longer to be the objective of the US and its European and Arab partners working in Syria.
Washington is trying to create a balance with Damascus and Tehran, imagining ISIS as a sort of balancing force to cancel out the Lebanese Hezbollah and the other Iranian Revolutionary Guard Forces (IRGC) on Syrian soil. However, there is a great difference in the US approach because, unlike the US, Iran and its allies are present at the request of the Syrian government. They can withdraw when the danger of ISIS and “Al Qaeda” disappears, or when Damascus feels confident it can defeat terrorism and terrorists and obtain the withdrawal of all occupation forces.
Nevertheless, the US policy in Syria maintains the Takfiri danger over Bilad al-Sham and Mesopotamia in the eastern area of the Euphrates and the Anbar desert. ISIS has been operating in this area since 2001 (under a different name) and has deep knowledge of the geography. This would allow – as forces on the ground in the area expect – the terrorist group to hit the Syrian and the Iraqi armies regularly, creating ongoing casualties.
The US and the Russian forces have divided the east and west of the Euphrates into areas of interest and control for each of the two superpowers. Therefore, neither the Russian nor the Syrian Air Forces can violate this agreement without clashing with the United States.
Also, the US is imposing a Rule Of Engagement (ROE) over the Syrian forces and its allies: if attacked in Syria, US forces will strike Iranian and pro-Iranian forces based in the Levant. This might turn out to be a very dangerous and ugly situation for the US and its interests in Syria, Iraq and indeed the whole region (as we shall see later in this article). There are many Iraqi forces willing to hit the US forces if ever these position themselves against the “axis of the resistance”, as many Iraqi forces feel part of it.
As for the Syrian Kurds they have begun to realise that the US has used them for its own political purposes and objectives. The US won’t let go of Turkey, a NATO member and a declared enemy of the Syrian Kurds, only to please its new Syrian proxies. The Kurds have, strategically, little to contribute to US objectives in the Middle East. The US only needs a non-hostile area to position itself in for as long as its troops need to stay and occupy northern Syria.
Turkey believes it has the right to strike the Kurds and is trying to push its forces towards Efrin, on the north-western borders. Turkey won’t hit the Kurds on the other side as long as the US forces are deployed in this specific area.
The last point in the context is Washington’s plan to exploit the presence of some 11-12 million Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons in the forthcoming presidential elections. The US has asked the UN to be ready to organise its supervision of the election to play a monitoring role. Therefore, all countries (especially Lebanon and Jordan) become a force to hang on to the Syrian refugees and prevent these from returning to vote at home. The US and the EU believe they can influence the outcome of the presidential elections and obtain through ballot what they have failed to reach on the battlefield (regime change!).
Iran and America in Syria
Iran will not hesitate to announce the withdrawal of its forces from Syria to disrupt the US ROE and upset the US’s objectives. Iran maintains about 250 Iranian military advisers and a few thousand troops it has brought from Iran to fight in Syria since 2013. These played a key role especially in the battles of Aleppo, Hama and al-Badia (the Syrian Steppe) along with other allies.
However, Iran has had advisers and offices in Syria since 1982 (the Israeli invasion to Lebanon) with the approval of the Syrian authority under the rule of the late President Hafez al-Assad. This presence will remain because Syria and Iran (and Hezbollah) are part of the “axis of resistance” which has become much stronger than in the days of its creation in 2010, when it opposed President George W. Bush who had called all these elements (plus North Korea) the “axis of evil.”
Iran will not leave any excuse for the US to strike its troops directly because the two – America and Iran – know that US forces will be directly hit in the Middle East in years to come as long as it is declared to be an occupying force in Syria.
It is however unlikely that Iran will target US forces directly. Iran supports President Bashar al-Assad and therefore enjoys many allies, all eager to hit the US forces if these remain in Syria or try to hit Syrian allies.
As for Hezbollah, the United States will never dare to attack its ground forces or bases in Syria (and Lebanon). If it does, Hezbollah’s strategic missiles will certainly hit Israel. Hezbollah leadership already took this decision and will also implement it if ever Israel attacks Hezbollah positions in Syria.
Also, Hezbollah and Iranian forces have isolated the al-Tanf crossing where US and British forces are located and has established a 55 kilometres safety parameter, preventing any Syrian or its allies from breaking it. Moreover, the Iraqi forces pushed troops on the al-Tanaf Iraqi side, to completing the circle around the US-British forces.
The US forces are not in a brilliant position. Their occupation of al-Tanaf crossing commits them to supporting some 40,000 Syrian families displaced in the area, where the only supply route would be by air or through the Iraqi desert. Also, there are many groups in al-Hasaka who have learned the use of sophisticated and camouflaged IEDs so that the US understands the message: your presence in Syria will cost you human lives, be ready.
Assad is also supporting Arab tribes operating in al-Raqqah and al-Hasaka, to be ready as a resistance forces. Assad is determine to recover all energy (oil and gas) fields east of the Euphrates, including those still under ISIS control and US protection, but Russia will be able to start drilling for oil and gas (also off the Mediterranean coast) to secure additional supplies for the Syrian government.
By preceding the US forces to the nearby Albu Kamal, Damascus forces and its allies control all the Syrian cities in the region except for the city of Al-Raqqah, which was completely devastated by the US bombing. Damascus wouldn’t mind seeing the US and the EU reconstructing what they have destroyed, and then leaving the Levant forever.
As for the presidential elections, President al-Assad will not accept fixing a specific date unless internally displaced persons and refugees return home, particularly since most of “useful Syria” is liberated (with the exception of Idlib and Daraa). Thus, Assad is carefully watching, very much aware that the US-EU-UN plan to overthrow him (through the ballot box) is the West’s unrealisable wishful thinking.
On the other hand, Turkey is already talking about re-establishing its relationship with Assad. Also, the Syrian Kurdish forces operating under the United States are opening many channels with Damascus, aware the US will drop them at the first opportunity, once they no longer serve their purpose. The Kurds are asking for a federal state, a request that won’t be fulfilled by Damascus. Assad is not willing to discuss any reforms so long as Syria is occupied (as it is by the US and Turkey).
As far as Israel is concerned, it has become the weakest link between the US and Hezbollah, paying a price for the attempt to change the regime in Syria and for any change of dynamic on the ground. Hezbollah and Iran won’t leave Syria and will not abide by any security distance, as long as it is on Syrian territory and Israel maintains an occupation of the Golan Heights. But more importantly, President Assad is prepared to open the door to the Syrian resistance to regain the Golan and impose new ROE with Israel to respond to any air breach or air strike.
The US presence in Syria is not going to be a walkover, interesting days ahead.