With the aim of overcoming the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq drawing closer, the intentions of the various actors in the region, from Syrians, both rebels and pro-government, to Kurds, Turks, Iranians, Americans, Russians and militiamen of different origins. This is the board facing the final matches where every movement can have dramatic repercussions.
This article was originally published on June 8, 2017 in Spanish in the Gran Tablero blog.
On the morning of June 8, 2017, CNN reported that US aircraft attacked for the second day in a row – and third in less than a month – Syrian government troops.
This is not another act of violence in the six-year war that the Asian country is experiencing. In fact, we are witnessing skirmishes of what could well become the first direct war between the United States and Russia. Not even in the Cold War was the world so close to its end.
The center of this specific problem is At-Tanf, a small place in the Syrian desert north of the Jordanian border and whose only importance is that it controls the road leading to Baghdad. It was there that the United States established a military base, within Syrian territory and without requesting any authorization. Together with British, French and Norwegian troops, they are providing arms and training to the opponents of the Syrian government.
Supposedly, the motive is for these opponents to attack the jihadists of the Islamic State (IS), which are much further north-east. Even with the very free interpretation of the legal basis that the US government has, they can only take military actions against IS, which they consider a terrorist group. Nothing in their own legislation or international law empowers Washington to fight forces loyal to the Syrian government. For that reason, his public explanation must be that they’re fighting IS.
Pro-government forces launched less than a month ago an operation to control their border with Jordan and from there to attack IS in Deir Ezzor, which included a move towards At-Tanf. In this movement, a convoy was attacked on 18 May by US aircraft (some sources claim they were Jordanians, but they’re part of the same coalition). There were six dead and some combat vehicles damaged.
At that time, the US military reported that they had attacked “pro-regime forces advancing far into a de-escalation zone northwest of At-Tanf (…) posing a threat to the United States and its associated forces.” The attack allegedly followed repeated warnings and even intervention by Russia (the Syrian government’s strong ally) to discourage the military movement. Syria denied that they had received warnings and Russia denied that they tried to prevent the advance of their allies.
In addition, in the area of the attack there was no “de-escalation zone,” which would correspond to Syrian sectors where ceasefire is implemented thanks to an agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey. Now it is known that the United States speaks of an area that they created unilaterally around their own base. They have warned that they will attack anyone who comes within 55 kilometers of that point in At-Tanf.
Without going into details of what is another violation of legality and sovereignty, because they created a “forbidden zone” for Syrian military in Syrian territory, there is the curious matter of the “de-escalation” working for one side only. That is, the Syrians and their allies can not approach At-Tanf, but the opponents covered there with their Western allies can shoot at those outside – and they have been doing so. At least until Syrian (or perhaps Russian) aviation silenced their long-range rocket launchers firing them from outside the boundary.
This clash may be interpreted as an attempt by opponents to lure pro-government forces into the “forbidden zone,” where they would be destroyed by US aviation, as promised. So far, they have not fallen into the trap. Despite all the rhetoric saying they will not allow themselves to be intimidated in their own territory, the pro-government forces have remained outside the area claimed by the United States.
It’s worth saying that the pro-government side has continued to rally troops and equipment to the 55 kilometers stipulated unilaterally by Washington (Zaza and Shahmeh on the map). It is not just Syrian regular troops. There are Syrian militias too, but also Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese (from Hezbollah, which we could call the Shiite army of Lebanon), and certainly Russian special troops.
From their position, they could launch an attack at any time, which would escalate quickly to an air confrontation between Russians and Americans. And even if Russian aircraft do not participate, what would happen if one of the Russian “advisers” died?
It’s easy to imagine the worst of the scenarios, which can be triggered by the most trivial error.
And that’s so without considering the provocations. In addition to the bombings launched by the opponents, the United States has already escalated the conflict in the area by unilaterally adding another condition for the “safe haven.” On Wednesday 7 they launched a new attack on forces grouped outside the controlled area. For it’s no longer enough that they are maintained at the arbitrarily imposed distance, but there must be also in small groups.
Once again, the United States justified the attack with a defensive argument: the number of troops rallying outside the safe zone made them fear for the safety of their forces and allies, so they decided to “make an statement,” killing three combatants and destroying other vehicles. Although it’s not politically correct, it can be said that “fortunately” the dead were Syrians, because if the victims were Iranians or Russians (even Iraqis) the consequences could’ve been very serious.
Despite the tension created, this Thursday United States destroyed a drone flying in the same zone. The drone was Iranian, so it is difficult to know which of the combatants on the Syrian side was using it. However, one day before, Iran had revealed images of one of their drones following another American in the same area.
In short, we have “rebels” who have become strong in a strategic area for Syria, within Syria, with US support and air cover. Despite the illegality and arbitrariness of this situation, the pro-government forces have remained outside the area, which has not prevented them from being attacked. No attack has fallen outside the “forbidden zone” against Islamic State forces, only against supporters of the Syrian government.
To put it bluntly: The United States and members of the so-called Free Syrian Army are trying to create a territory that is forbidden to pro-government Syrians, which strangely enough prevents them from attacking the alleged terrorists that both sides claim to be fighting, while securing Syria’s crossing into Iraq. There is no mistaking: on the other side of the border Iraqi forces are waiting, ready to join the Syrians in their advance against the Islamic State. The United States prevents it.
So far, Russia has remained far from this point of conflict, but has publicly expressed support for Syrian allies and the rejection of arbitrary actions by the United States and their partners.
Meanwhile, in the north of the country, Syrian aviation launched attacks on Kurdish forces also supported by the United States on Thursday. The unforeseen attack is indicated as a reprisal for what happened in the south, because they have Russian air cover there and the Kurds would be between two fires. Turkey and their own allies from the Free Syrian Army also launched attacks against the Kurds.
Now that the end of Islamic State in Syria seems predictable, these new facts come to thwart optimism. Peace does not seem close but quite the opposite: the catastrophe is imminent.