US conflict in Syria could mutate into a regional conflagration

Syria Badia al Tanf tank Bashar Assad
loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad on a tank in the southeast
Syrian desert, June 13, 2017.

SANA/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

This weekend, for the fourth time in a month, US-led coalition
forces clashed with forces backing the government of Syrian
President Bashar Assad.

The incident — the downing of a Syrian
army jet
in northern Syria — is another lurch toward what
could be a fight that draws powers like Iran as well as the US
and Russia into a conflict spanning the region.

On Sunday, US military officials said Syrian pro-government
forces attacked the village of Ja’Din, south of Tabqah and west
of Raqqa.

The strike reportedly wounded members of the Syrian Democratic
Forces, which is a coalition of mostly Arab and Kurdish
fighters who have become important US partners in the fight
against ISIS.

Coalition fighter jets reportedly halted that outbreak of
fighting with show of

About two hours later, a Syrian SU-22 jet again struck SDF
fighters, dropping munitions with little warning, according to US
Central Command spokesman Col. John Thomas, who said there were
US forces in the area that were not directly threatened. US
aircraft tried to contact the Syrian jet but failed to do so,
Thomas said.

After that, according to a
coalition statement, “in accordance with rules of engagement and
in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces, [it]
was immediately shot down by a U.S. F/A-18E Super Hornet.”

Syria Iraq Raqqa al Tanf Tabqah mapChristopher Woody/Google Maps

Previous clashes between the US-led coalition and its
partner forces and the Assad regime and its allies, Russia and
Iran among them, took place in southeastern Syria around an
outpost near al Tanf, on the border with Iraq.

On May 18, coalition airstrikes hit pro-regime forces “that
were advancing well inside an established de-confliction zone”
northeast of al Tanf, US Central Command said in a release at
the time
. That strike came after “apparent Russian attempts
to dissuade Syrian pro-regime movement south towards At Tanf were

Weeks later, on June 6, pro-Assad forces again entered the
deconfliction zone, which covers a 34-mile radius around al

A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter gestures towards an armoured vehicle in Hawi Hawa village, west of Raqqa, Syria June 11, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Syrian Democratic Forces fighter gestures toward an armored
vehicle in Hawi Hawa village, west of Raqqa.

Thomson Reuters

“The Coalition issued several warnings via the
de-confliction line prior to destroying two artillery pieces, an
anti-aircraft weapon, and damaging a tank,” the coalition said
at the time.

On June 8, coalition forces again
pro-Assad forces that entered the deconfliction

Hours after that engagement, a US aircraft shot down a
regime drone that dropped bombs near coalition partner

As after those incidents, the US-led coalition said on Sunday:

“The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or
pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to
defend Coalition or partner forces from any threat … The
demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces
toward Coalition and partner forces in Syria conducting
legitimate counter-ISIS operations will not be tolerated.”

Despite that sentiment, the US, Iran, and Russia all appear to be
edging closer to a deeper conflict in Syria.

Moscow has provided air support to the Assad regime since 2015, and
this month it launched attacks
on US-backed fighters that were attacking Iranian-backed forces
near al Tanf.

In a statement on
Monday, the Russian Ministry of Defense called the shoot down of
the Syrian jet “a cynical violation of the sovereignty of the
Syrian Arab Republic” and said the US did not use the established
communication line with Moscow beforehand.

The statement also called some US combat air operations
“blatant breach[es] of the international law” and “military
aggression” against Syria.

russian military jets syria
military jets at Hmeymim air base in Syria, June 18,

Russian Defense Ministry/Vadim
Savitsky via Reuters

It also said Russia had stopped cooperating with the US to
prevent incidents in the air over Syria and that going forward,
“In the combat mission zones of the Russian aviation in the air
space of Syria, all kinds of airborne vehicles, including
aircraft and UAVs of the international coalition detected to the
west of the Euphrates River will be tracked by the Russian
[surface-to-air missile] systems as air targets.” (Though that
statement was reportedly amended.)

The US said Monday that it was repositioning its
aircraft over Syria to ensure safety in its operations against
ISIS, but the Pentagon also said US pilots would defend themselves
against the Russians if attacked.

Events in Syria in the last 24 hours have been complicated by Iran
medium-range surface-to-surface missiles from western
Iran at ISIS targets in northeast Syria’s Dier Ez-Zur

Iran, which has long backed Assad with Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps advisers and support from the Lebanese
militia Hezbollah, justified the strike as retaliation for a
recent ISIS attack in Tehran that left 18 dead.

Syria Iran
President Bashar Assad, right, with Iranian Foreign Minister
Mohammad Javad Zarif in Damascus, Syria, in this photo released
by Syria’s national news agency on August 12,


But the nature and timing of Iran’s strike was also likely
calculated to send a message to a wider audience, demonstrating
that Tehran would hit back against terrorism and that it had the
capability to strike throughout the region — the latter message
almost certainly
for the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

The US’s sharply intensifying involvement in Syria has
triggered alarm among US observers.

“The cult of credibility is as popular in DC as it is
dangerous. Watch Syria. The risk of sliding into a big war is
rising,” Colin Kahl, who served as
deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East as well
as national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and
deputy assistant to President Barack Obama, said on Twitter on

“For years, hawks have argued that Assad & Iran (&
Russia after 2015) were essentially paper tigers in Syria” who
could be deterred by the US, Kahl added. But, he said, despite
Trump’s strikes on an Assad airfield and the recent clashes, the
regime and its allies “keep pushing, probing, testing,
countering. They haven’t been cowed & deterred.”

“Why?” Kahl continued. “Because the terrain they are
fighting over, & the US coalition is now operating near, is
very important to the Axis of Assad.”

Syria Badia militias
loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad ride pickup trucks mounted
with weapons in the Badia, in the southeast Syrian desert, in
this picture provided by SANA on June 13,

SANA/Handout via REUTERS/File

The al Tanf area specifically is strategically valuable to
Assad and Iran because it would provide Tehran an overland link
to move men and material through Iraq to Syria and

Intelligence sources have told Reuters
that the coalition’s presence near al Tanf is meant to prevent
such a route from opening.

The situation is made more fraught by reports that White
House officials have pushed to
US involvement in Syria and confront Iran more

Two National Security Council officials — Senior Director
for Intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Derek Harvey, the
council’s top Middle East adviser — want to go on the offensive
the war-torn country, and their fervor has reportedly left other
Iran hawks, like Defense Secretary James Mattis, uneasy.
(Cohen-Watnick is reportedly suggested using US spies to
the Iranian government.)

Mattis, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph
Dunford, and Brett McGurk, the diplomat overseeing the anti-ISIS
coalition, have all pushed back.

So far their vision
of the campaign has won out.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (L) and Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford hold a press briefing on the campaign to defeat ISIS at the Pentagon in Washington, U.S., May 19, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen.
Joseph Dunford at a briefing on the anti-ISIS campaign, May 19,


Some in the administration have pushed to confront Iran
in Yemen
, where Tehran is backing the Houthi rebels against a
Saudi-led coalition in a fight that has pushed the country to the
brink of famine.

The US is supporting Saudi
forces in their campaign. (There are also tensions simmering
between Riyadh and its partners and Iran.)

With the US’s deepening involvement in Afghanistan — where
the US is set to send thousands more
several months after dropping the biggest
weapon its arsenal on an ISIS affiliate camp
there — some
have expressed concern
that Washington could soon find itself deeply involved in
conflicts stretching from the Pakistani frontier to the
Mediterranean coast and down to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula
(and even in the nearby Horn of

All this has come as Trump has taken a decidedly hands-off
approach to military operations.

Some have cast that in favorable contrast to Obama’s
micromanagement” of
operations abroad. Others, like Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas
Heras of the Middle East Program at the Center for New American
Security, have said Trump may be “blindly stumbling into this
conflict with no public discussion of the consequences.”

The risks of “what could potentially mutate into a vastly
expanded American military intervention in the Middle East” might
not be worth what may be limited gains in Syria, Goldenberg and Heras

With his administration looking for solutions in Syria,
weighing deeper involvement in Afghanistan, poised to deal with
the fallout of ISIS’ defeat in its Iraqi stronghold of Mosul,
Trump has yet to
with his commanders in either of the latter two

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