The move by the US military to shift for the first time the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) into Syrian territory from Jordan signifies that the Pentagon has created a new fact on the ground. According to the CNN, the deployment will be in the military base in Al-Tanf near Syria’s border with Iraq in the south-eastern region, which is currently an area of contestation between US-backed rebel groups and Syrian government forces.
A Russian Defence Ministry statement in Moscow on Thursday noted that the deployment might suggest a US intention to attack the Iran-backed Syrian government forces. The Russian statement said:
The range of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System is not enough to support the US-backed units… in Raqqa. At the same time, the US-led anti-terrorist coalition has several times attacked the Syrian government forces near the Jordanian border, so it can be assumed that such attacks will continue, but this time involving the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems.
Indeed, such authoritative Russian statements, even while speculative, must be relying on intelligence inputs. Clearly, the US intentions need to be interpreted.
One possibility could be that it might actually be a defensive move. The US has so far counted on other protagonists – government forces, Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey and Russia – to exercise absolute self-restraint in not confronting the American forces. This tacit understanding (or pragmatism on both sides) worked well largely so far.
Although, US-Russia relations continue to deteriorate, the ‘de-confliction’ arrangement in Syria has worked well so far.
However, war is war and there is nothing like a bit of self-help in such uncertain times. The point is the HIMARS provides an alternate means to hit the adversary if air operations are not feasible for some reason – or is simply a preferable option.
From all appearances, the US reportedly has plans to create military bases in southern Syria (similar to what it has done in the northern regions bordering Turkey and Iraq) and, if so, the deployment of HIMARS fits into the plan.
Suffice to say, it all boils down to the big question: What are, going ahead, the Trump administration’s politico-military intentions in Syria?
At a press briefing in Baghdad on June 7, Brett McGurk, US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, maintained that the US military presence in and around Al-Tanf (near Syrian-Iraqi border) is purely temporary.
While explaining the rationale for the recent US attacks on the Syrian government forces in that area, McGurk claimed that the US mission is to fight the ISIS in Syria and “when the fight against Daesh is over, we won’t be there.”
But then, one thing that the Qatar crisis has shown is that the Trump administration can be diabolical.
On the other hand, Syrian government forces are interested in regaining control of their country’s border with Iraq. President Bashar Al-Assad has repeatedly insisted that he intends to regain control of the whole of Syria.
And there are sufficient indications that the Syrian government forces are being deployed to regain the vast, vacant, lawless spaces in eastern Syria bordering Iraq. This Syrian military thrust has been interpreted by some commentators as aimed at opening a land route across Iraq all the way to Iran through which Tehran can beef up Hezbollah.
The assumption here is that a 1000-kilometre long land bridge connecting Damascus with Tehran (via al-Tanf and Baghdad) serves the purpose.
A commentary by the Brussels-based think tank European Council on Foreign Relations – US must avoid a war with Iran in eastern Syria – cautions the Trump administration that it is bound to lose in any rivalry with Iran over control of the Syrian-Iraqi border.
However, Israel is betting on a US-Iranian conflagration and it remains to be seen how far the Trump administration can withstand the pressure from the Jewish lobby.
Meanwhile, latest reports suggest that Iraqi government forces and Sunni fighters have taken control of the border crossing near Al-Tanf inside Iraq (known as al-Waleed border crossing).
A Reuters report has interpreted this development as in effect “preventing Iranian-backed forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from receiving heavy weaponry from Iran by using the main highway between Iraq and Syria.”
Quite obviously, a US-Iranian contestation is building up in southern Syria.
In sum, Israel might be getting what it seeks, but it is another matter altogether whether it is going to like the final outcome of the struggle between the US and Iran over control of southern Syria near Golan Heights.
It is improbable that Iran will give up the ‘axis of resistance’ because it is ultimately about Iran’s own defence.
Read an incisive analysis by the Middle East Eye on the joint Israeli-US game plan to work in tandem with ISIS to pile pressure on Iran to pull back from the Syrian and Iraqi theatres: “The CIA and Islamic State: Iran’s twin threats”.
Source: M. K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Punchline, 18/6/2017 This page at https://syrianfreepress.wordpress.com/2017/06/22/usa-iran-israel/