Heightening Tension between U.S.-led Coalition and Iran-led Forces in Syria

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | May 18, 2017
Heightening Tension between U.S.-led Coalition and Iran-led Forces in Syria

Just hours before the news of U.S. airstrikes in Syria broke out, Iran’s Fars News Agency (F.N.A.) reported that the Lebanese Hezbollah had dispatched 3,000 fighters near the border-crossing al-Tanf passageway along Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan to “thwart the U.S. plots” and take the control of the Palmyra-Baghdad road.

According to F.N.A., which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.), most of these forces were previously stationed in al-Zabadani, Madhaya and Sarqaya areas as well as the Western parts of the town of al-Tofail and Brital, Ham and Ma'araboun heights in the Eastern mountain. The report added that the Syrian Army had reportedly also deployed troops to help Hezbollah and other Iran-controlled militant groups “to block the way to the US-backed forces” – referring to Syrian opposition groups. I.R.G.C. sources had said earlier this week that the establishment of Russian-sponsored de-escalation zones had allowed the Syrian Army and Iran-led forces to redeploy to other contested regions.

Quoting a Russian source, the I.R.G.C. outlet also noted that pro-Assad forces are trying to take control of regions that connects Damascus to Baghdad to “to restore sustainable security to the main supply line of importing arms and other military equipment from Iraq.” The report further claimed that Damascus “went on the alert after intelligence reports gathered from surveillance drones suggested that the US, Britain and Jordanian militaries might be prepping a massive invasion of Syria.” F.N.A. also claims that 400 American and Jordanian military vehicles have been stationed near the Syrian Desert border, and added that “the military convoys of the US, Jordan and Britain might launch an assault to help the West-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) around the Al-Tanf border crossing.”

Comment: Earlier today, the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State – Operation Inherent Resolve – confirmed that its aircraft targeted pro-Syrian regime forces threatening a coalition base in southern Syria where the coalition is training moderate Syrian opposition forces to fight the Islamic State. The pro-Assad forces reportedly “were advancing well inside an established de-confliction zone” and “posed a threat to US and partner forces.”

As I wrote yesterday, the confrontation was inevitable. The I.R.G.C. in recent days had deployed hundreds of fighters to southern Syria to confront the Syrian opposition groups backed by the United States. In the past three weeks, the I.R.G.C. media and analysts have been constantly warning that the U.S. “military buildup” along the Syrian-Jordanian and Syrian-Iraqi borders is a prelude to a broader plan by Washington and its regional allies to “invade” Syria and undo the military gains of the Assad regime and its allies by empowering opposition forces.

To counter such a threat, the I.R.G.C. has repositioned its forces in Syria to seize the control of strategic regions along the Syrian borders and challenge the presence of American troops there. Earlier this week, F.N.A. reported that more than 1,000 fighters – mainly from Hezbollah – have been deployed to two fronts in southern Syria near the border with Jordan. The I.R.G.C. and its allies hope that the deployment of additional forces to Daraa, Homs and Quneitra regions would prevent the “U.S.-backed militants” stationed in al-Tanf border crossing from moving toward Deir Ez-Zor.

It is too soon to say whether today’s strikes mark a significant shift in the U.S. policy in Syria – although it is the first time the U.S. military is providing air support to rebel groups attacked by pro-Assad forces - or the strikes were a one-time action for force protection purposes. But one thing is clear: As the common enemy - the Islamic State - is losing ground in Iraq and Syria, the prospect of dangerous and direct confrontation between the Iran-backed militia forces and the U.S.-led coalition forces in Syria and Iraq is on the rise.

The escalation also comes against the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s planned visit to Saudi Arabia, where he is seeking to help establish a new regional security alliance to counter Iran’s regional ambitions.