As President Trump prepared to deliver the speech in Saudi Arabia that would blame Iran for “so much instability in the region,” he may not have fully appreciated the danger Iran’s proxies posed to his troops. On May 18th, U.S. forces directly struck Iranian-backed militias in Syria for the first time.
Despite minimal media coverage, two further clashes between U.S.- and Iranian-backed forces have occurred in the weeks since that attack. In the first week of June, the United States struck a second convoy and then shot down an armed drone operated by pro-regime militias. Then, on June 13th, the United States moved an additional rocket system from Jordan into southern Syria to defend its forces against the pro-regime militias’ newly deployed artillery systems. All of these provocations occurred within one of the so-called de-confliction zones in southern Syria. This alarming escalation indicates that the threat of more direct conflict between Iran and the United States in Syria is growing.
Both powers have sought to capitalize on ISIS’s recent losses for strategic gain. Having advanced south and east from Qalamoun through a largely uninhabited area of the Syrian desert towards Iraq, pro-regime forces pushed back ISIS militants and have finally reached the Iraqi border. Syrian state television broadcast footage of supply trucks passing between Iraq and Syria for the first time in years – an economic boon for the regime.
Images of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, praying at the Syrian-Iraqi border confirm Iran’s role in the campaign and indicate the importance it placed on this victory. Indeed, regaining control over the Syrian-Iraqi border is a key step towards restoring a land corridor between Tehran and the Mediterranean. Such a corridor would allow Iran to re-establish land as well as air access to its allies in Lebanon and Syria.
But just miles away, anti-ISIS coalition forces are stationed in a base near the border town of al-Tanf, which they captured from ISIS in March 2016. The base was intended to be a springboard from which U.S.-backed forces could advance further into ISIS’s shrinking territory. U.S. forces are conducting train and equip missions with local Sunni Arab forces in the hope that these local forces will be able to secure stability in eastern Syria after ISIS collapses. The United States also hopes that doing so will restrict Iran’s influence in post-war Syria. As such, the United States and Iran have directly opposing, yet strategically vital, interests in this remote part of Syria.
The continued lack of a clearly defined U.S. strategy in Syria has allowed these confrontations to escalate. Although the Trump administration has broadly continued along the lines of Barack Obama’s limited intervention in Syria, Trump has delegated additional powers from the White House to the Pentagon which give local military commanders greater powers to act as they wish. U.S. troops’ ability to act in self-defence means tactical decisions to respond to immediate threats could well result in broader clashes with Iranian-backed forces, should they continue to act aggressively. In other words, Trump’s lack of coherent strategy to deal with Iran’s encroachment in south eastern Syria has the potential to suck the United States into more serious confrontation with Iran with severe regional implications. Although many in Washington seem to think the conflict in Syria is winding down, the United States may be sleep-walking into its most dangerous phase yet.
* / Will Todman is an associate fellow in the CSIS Middle East Program and a fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.