Are the US and Iran Headed for a Confrontation in Eastern Syria?
by Yasmine El-Geressi
ISIS has been defeated in its caliphate capital the Iraqi city of Mosul and is on the brink of collapse in its Western Syria bastion of Raqqa. Anyone who counts the reckoning of these cities as the end of ISIS underestimates its resiliency, its battle cry has long been “Baqiya wa tatamaddad,” or “remain and expand.” Senior figures have been planning months in advance for the decapitation of their caliphate, pulling resources and people from the frontlines and fleeing to eastern Syria.
Many U.S. military officials point to the Euphrates River Valley, namely the oil-rich province of Deir ez-Zor in Syria as ISIS’ newly carved out base which is conveniently located between Raqqa and Mosul. Deir ez-Zor, which is strategically positioned to serve as the military and supply heart for ISIS, was a bedrock of the Syrian economy before the war. It holds the richest oil supply in all of Syria which could help ISIS recover financially after oil production and revenue fell dramatically from lost territory as a result of the US-led offensive.
The race for Deir ez-Zor could prove incredibly complex as anti-ISIS players with conflicting political agendas converge and compete to wield their influence in the region. Though the area, which has been under ISIS control since 2014, is not heavily populated like Mosul or Raqqa, it is a natural fortress, flanked by mountains with remote towns and villages, making it more difficult for ground troops to launch surprise attacks, and airstrikes alone may not be very effective.
In who’s favor will the balance of power shift during the continued geopolitical rivalry for dominance is the vexing question.
Iran’s unprecedented ballistic missile attack against ISIS targets in the Deir ez-Zor province on June 18 in retaliation for the two deadly attacks carried out by ISIS earlier in the month which cost the lives of 17 civilians was a hugely significant development. According to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the missiles fired included the Zolfaqar, a new surface-to surface missile which Iran displayed at a military parade last September claiming that it can destroy targets 450 miles away “with a zero margin for error.” In a tweet, the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the county’s missile capabilities are designed to protect Iranian civilians “in lawful self-defense and advances common global fight to eradicate ISIS and extremist terror.” At the most obvious level, the attack, which was reportedly coordinated in advance with the Syrian army, was a demonstration of Iran’s rapidly-advancing missile program and its readiness to use them. A threat not considered in the nuclear deal which has provoked grave concerns in the US. “In addition to delivering a shattering blow to Daesh [ISIS] and other notorious groups on the Syrian soil, the missile attack gave the sponsors of terrorists a warning that any plot against Iran will not only be decisively smashed inside the country, but also receive a response at places hundreds of kilometers away from the Iranian territories,” said the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission. The attack also signaled the significance of eastern Syria in Iran’s strategic calculations. But, if we look deeper, the firing of the missiles, the first in 30 years from Iranian soil, delivered a sharp political message to the US who have turned up the rhetoric against Iran.
By striking ISIS targets in close proximity to US special forces based at al-Tanf, the IRGC is demonstrating its ability to attack US military forces directly with its mid-range ballistic missiles. It is also a show of potential intent and highlights Iran’s determination to protect vital strategic interests in eastern Syria.
Al-Tanf is an increasingly contested area where US coalition forces have clashed with Iran-back militias as they pushed on the other side of the border to capture the Iraqi town of al-Ba’aj, putting Iran on the cusp of reaching its goal of creating a route between Baghdad and Damascus. On May 30, the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units pushed through ISIS territory to reach Iraq’s border and link up with their Syrian allies, and on June 9 the Syrian army and Iranian-backed militiamen seized the border with Iraq for the first time since 2015. Capturing the Deir ez- Zor province is vital for Iran to complete its arc of influence which would allow Tehran to have control over a land corridor that runs from Tehran to Beirut, via Iraq and Syria.
Gaining a land bridge will allow Iran to easily transfer fighters and weapons to proxy forces in Syria and to increase its already substantial shipments of arms to its ally Hezbollah, a militia and political party in Lebanon that is listed by the US as a terrorist organization.
Washington has broadly adopted a more hardened anti-Iranian stance and one of its core interests in Syria is to contain Iran’s influence and resist their land bridge ambitions. The US has struck pro-Iranian forces on several occasions, heightening the tensions between Washington and Tehran. Over recent weeks pro-regime armed vehicles have come under US fire while inside a “de-confliction zone,” near the al-Tanf base. The “de-confliction zone” was agreed between Russia and the US to keep potentially hostile forces separated in Syria and to keep pro-Assad and pro-Iran forces away from the US base. A US aircraft also shot down an armed pro-Syrian unmanned drone that had dropped munitions in a region occupied by American and coalition personnel. However, the US military has made clear that these strikes are about force protection rather than opening a broader front. US Army spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said in a statement: “The demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces near Coalition and partner forces in southern Syria, however, continue to concern us and the Coalition will take appropriate measures to protect our forces.”
To reach the Deiz ez-Zor province, both sides are moving through Syria’s vast southern desert as they head for the ISIS-held town of Bukamal. Winning the race to Deir ez-Zour would boost President Trump’s calls to contain Tehran’s influence in the region and it could also provide US-backed forces with an important bargaining chip to use in the event of a final peace settlement for Syria. But the administration appears to be hesitant about its strategy in this region. The US military has not taken significant steps to stop the advances of regime-affiliated forces from securing control of the border north of al-Tanf. And although the United States has shown willingness to protect its forces with defensive strikes, there is little indication that the rebels have the military strength to successfully move northeast to Deir ez-Zour.
Perhaps the hesitance is because the struggle for Deir ez-Zour would create a lengthy period of danger for the US. Even if Washington does not directly engage with Russia and Iranian backed allies there is a danger of unintentional escalation particularly as Trump has shown a willingness to use military force against the Assad regime.
Trump has been consistent in his belief that Iran poses the greatest threat to US interests in the Middle East. And while Washington is keen to depict its pro-regime forces as a defensive measure, Assad’s regime and its Iranian allies view it as hostile and aggressive. Most likely, the US will continue to be guided by its pragmatic ISIS-focused agenda and will continue to try and work around Assad but by showcasing their military reach in Syria, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards risk provoking more tension with the Trump administration.