The Pentagon claimed that the Syrians seeking to liberate their own country’s territory from nearby ISIS militants posed a threat to American soldiers -- despite being 50 kilometers away from al-Tanf -- due to entering an agreed upon deconfliction zone. The Russians dispute that account, as well as claims that Russia failed to restrain its allies after the Americans contacted them, calling the strike a gross violation of Syria’s national sovereignty and international law.
Defense Secretary James Mattis’ remarks that the Syrians had violated an understanding established between the U.S. and Russia regarding deconflicted areas appeared to be an attempt to blur the lines in the media between deconfliction, which is about preventing Russo-American clashes, and the so-called safe zones created by tripartite agreement among the Russians, Turks and Iranians to set up ceasefire areas between Damascus and non-ISIS/Al-Qaeda militants. Other than the autonomous Kurdish areas in the northeast of the country, there are no ‘safe zones’ designated for the Americans in any agreements between Washington and Moscow, which would be tantamount to allowing the U.S. and Jordanians to partition the country.
This week, reports from the pro-Damascus site Al-Masdar News that Russian spetsnaz and VDV advisers are now openly operating alongside the Syrians and their Shi’a allies in the Suweida province close to the Jordanian border, is an indication that the Russian/Iranian alliance will not back down and allow the U.S. to prevent them from restoring at least partial Syrian government control along the border with Iraq. The reason is not to maintain, as many Washington think tankers falsely understand, a flow of arms along the so-called ‘Shi’a crescent’ overland from Iran through Iraq to the anti-Israel Lebanese Hezbollah. Those weapons are flown into Hezbollah warehouses inside Syria (which the Israelis bomb just about anytime they please using standoff missiles) instead of being shipped overland. What the Syrians really need from an open border with Iraq is manpower: thousands of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen, freed up from liberating Mosul, to secure their own country’s vast desert territories from ISIS.
Photo of a Russian spetsnaz soldier wearing a Hezbollah patch on his shoulder
According to Mideast correspondent Elijah J. Magnier, Moscow is now calling Washington’s bluff. The Americans are being presented with a choice: to further escalate to attacks on Syrians that could injure or kill Russian advisers flying Russian flags on their vehicles and using Russian infra-red IFF ‘strobe light’ devices visible to U.S. pilots, or back down. Furthermore, contrary to false reports circulating in Israeli media that tensions are developing between Moscow and its Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’a allies in Hezbollah, the Russians have been supporting with logistics a Hezbollah surge into eastern Syria away from Lebanese border areas now secured by Lebanon’s army. In his latest column to be translated into English, Magnier writes:
The “Ridwan” Hezbollah forces, along with hundreds of Russian special forces and the Syrian army and its proxies, are now fighting to recover the oil fields (exploited by Russia in Syria) and to stop the American-British-Jordanian project to create a “buffer zone” starting from the Suweida and Daraa governed territories and extending towards the Iraqi border, Deir al-Zour from Palmyra to Sukhna.
It is clear that the US – which supports the progress of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) made up of Kurds and of Arab tribes under the Kurdish leadership in the northeast of Syria – is not yet ready to guide its proxies towards the city of Deir Al-Zour, besieged as it is by ISIS. ISIS is indeed crumbling in Iraq and Syria but not yet that weak in Deir Al-Zour province, and especially not in the Syrian Badia (steppe).
Russia, Damascus and their allies are headed towards Deir Al-Zour, regardless of the US and their proxies rebels forces’ plan to control the Syrian steppe and the city of Deir Al-Zour (which host large numbers of Syrian Army officers and soldiers, along with Hezbollah Special Forces). Moreover, Damascus has sent a clear signal to Amman, a threat that it would consider the Jordanian forces as enemies if these set foot on Syrian soil in support of the US and its Syrian proxies. This clear and direct menace stopped the American-British-Jordanian progress and has put these forces in an awkward position with the Damascus authorities.
If the Americans can use their soldiers as human shields for their ‘moderate rebels’ of Jaish al Thuwar (the misnamed ‘Army of Revolutionaries’ which is neither an army nor revolutionary) then the Russians can certainly accompany their allies by doing the same. What’s certain is three things: Killing or wounding more Iraqi PMU inside Syria will blowback against U.S. counter-ISIS operations in Iraq, possibly leading to threats by the Iranian-backed group to either boycott further advances or even attack American troops. Jaish al Thuwar does not have anything close to the manpower necessary to secure hundreds of kilometers of largely uninhabited Syraqi desert borderlands, much spearhead an assault on ISIS forces besieging the Syrian government garrison of Deir Ez Zor. Nor can a couple hundred U.S./NATO special forces (which now include a few dozen Norwegian soldiers!) directing a battalion sized force of ‘vetted moderate rebels’ block a Syrian government advance to the border, even with US airpower on call -- irrespective of what some alternative or mainstream media report.
Well aware of these military realities, U.S. Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff/Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford sought on Friday to downplay the significance of the American air strike, implying it was purely the decision of a local commander, and emphasize that the Pentagon was in talks with the Russians to prevent further incidents:
We’ve gone back and -- and -- and had a conversation at every level now to ensure that those kind of incidents don’t take place again. Last night, I -- I made a commitment that they wouldn’t happen again if our forces weren’t threatened. And everybody understands what the rules are. So, that’s what’s going to prevent it [more air strikes on the SAA] in the future.
According to an RT report on May 19, Dunford added that the U.S. and Russia were negotiating on deconflicting any counter ISIS operations in or around Deir Ez Zor. The Syrian government’s Tiger Forces are continuing their advance from the north in Aleppo province, putting pressure on ISIS already thinly stretched forces. To the south, the Desert Hawks brigades are crossing eastern Homs province to reclaim the gas fields and create a potential spearhead to come down towards the Euphrates Valley city of Deir Ez Zor from the northwest. From the west, SAA and Russian advisers/forward air controllers are moving from Palmyra/Tadmur toward the towns of Arak and then Al-Suknah.
Writing in The Washington Post on May 21, columnist and CNN ‘political analyst’ Josh Rogin wrote that the U.S. must try to prevent the Syrians from liberating more of their own country’s soil from ISIS, because Iranian-backed militias were providing much of the manpower:
A Syrian opposition rebel leader who works with the U.S. military said that while there are a mix of regime, Iranian and militia forces fighting in the area, the Iranians are in command of the campaign. Their first goal is to establish control over a security triangle that would give them free movement between the eastern Syrian towns of Palmyra and Deir al-Zour and Baghdad.
The Iranians’ second goal is to block the U.S.-supported rebels in al-Tanf from Deir al-Zour. If the rebels take the city from the Islamic State, it would be a huge boon for the Sunni opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Rogin’s notion that the ‘U.S.-supported rebels’ have either the manpower or the will to oust a tough-as- nails SAA garrison from Deir Ez Zor that has held out against over two years of Islamic State siege represents neocon wishful thinking. But perhaps Rogin imagines CIA intel and/or U.S. special ops support and airpower can act as magical force multipliers in this instance. What he isn’t counting on in his neocon arrogance is that the Syrians and their allies have some special forces and airpower on their side too:
If the U.S. cannot match Gen. Dunford’s words about deconflicting to prevent further clashes in the Syraqi border region with good faith actions, then there will likely be more than just strongly worded Russian protests and reminders that U.S. forces are not in the country with the permission of its legitimate government.
Next time, if there is a next time, American jets may face greetings more threatening than warning shots from ZSU guns mounted on pickup trucks. Whether that will include Russian fighter patrols and mobile SAMs flying the Syrian flag to remind the U.S. that it cannot carve off a chunk of Syria’s sovereign territory unopposed, is likely up to Washington.