How US may be facing wider conflict with pro-government forces in Syria
BEIRUT // The United States never signed up for a war with the Syrian government or its allies.
When Washington intervened in Syria in 2014, the mission was simple: to confront, degrade and destroy ISIL while avoiding the politics of a complicated civil war.
Even when the US bombed a Syrian air base in April, it was a one-off, punitive strike aimed at punishing Damascus for a sarin attack – not the opening salvo of a wider conflict.
Over the past month, however, there has been a dramatic escalation threatening to complicate Washington’s mission in Syria.
The US has engaged with pro-government forces and aircraft in Syria on four separate occasions, bombing pro-regime convoys, shooting down Iranian-made drones, and downing a Syrian fighter jet.
Without a clearly defined Syria policy, the US has unexpectedly stumbled into the tangled web of the war and now faces a potentially wider conflict with pro-government forces in eastern Syria.
Escalation is being pushed along not only by Iran-backed pro-government forces – who are eager to harass, and perhaps even fight, US troops – but also by officials in president Donald Trump’s administration moving for the US to help block an “Iranian corridor” stretching across Iraq and Syria.
The Trump administration “inherited from its predecessor a non-existent strategy, basically a set of tactics aimed at eliminating ISIS with not much thought being given to what’s next”, said Frederic Hof, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, who previously served as former US president Barack Obama’s special adviser for transition in Syria.
“That’s kind of the backdrop that puts the Trump administration in a tough position where escalation is quite likely as the Assad regime and its Iranian supporters try to establish themselves in areas either vacated by or liberated from ISIS.”
Much of the latest tension revolves around Tanf, a town on the Syria-Iraq border near where both countries meet Jordan. Washington established a base there a year ago, deploying troops to aid US-trained rebel forces there. While far from the main hub of US activity in northeastern Syria and the front line at Raqqa, the forces at Tanf remain part of the mission against ISIL.
But Tanf is also prime real estate for the Assad regime and its allies, lying along a potential land corridor that would link Iran with the Mediterranean, passing through Iraq and Syria via territory under the control of Tehran’s closest friends and proxies.
While US forces at Tanf are still tasked with fighting ISIL, there are signs that some in Mr Trump’s administration are encouraging Washington to use this area to block the Iranian corridor – and make good on the administration’s promises about confronting Iran.
Pro-government forces have come close to Tanf and the US has accused them of acting hostile to the base by moving troops and armed drones in its vicinity, triggering US retaliation.
Meanwhile, pro-government troops have also moved more aggressively against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria, despite previously avoiding conflict with the Kurdish-led alliance. On Sunday last week, Washington said Syrian jets had dropped bombs near SDF positions, prompting a US F/A-18E Super Hornet to then shoot down a Syrian government jet. Russia, an Assad ally, responded by threatening to treat US aircraft operating west of the Euphrates river as targets.
The latest developments are frustrating US efforts in Syria.
“It looks like the [Syrian] regime wanted to tie the hands of the coalition or kind of frustrate coalition efforts. And it’s apparently succeeded,” said Sam Heller, a fellow focusing on Syria at The Century Foundation, a New York-based think tank. “I haven’t heard about any intention to surrender and abandon Tanf, but it looks now like it is no longer useful as a staging ground for some hypothetical advance on Deir Ezzor.”
While conflict so far has been with pro-government forces in Syria, there is also a risk that an escalation may have ramifications in Iraq, where Iran-backed Shiite militias operate in proximity to US troops.
Over the course of his short tenure, Mr Trump and his administration went from talking about potentially partnering with Damascus and Moscow against ISIL, to appearing absolutely disinterested in the civil war, to bombing Syrian government targets.
While pro-government fighters in Syria have been lost to US strikes, Washington has not responded with disproportionate force and has sought to de-escalate the conflict by reiterating they are not looking for a fight with the Syrian government, allied militias or Russia. Despite this, provocations from pro-government forces in Syria are unlikely to halt. Moscow’s threats against US aircraft may have been bluster, but there is little reason for other pro-regime forces to stop provoking US troops.
Using drones is a “pretty easy, low-cost way for Iran to harass US and coalition forces indefinitely – basically forever”, said Mr Heller. “I don’t think that those sort of small provocations are likely to end.”