BEIRUT — The Iranian media recently raised a red flag, saying that the United States was preparing to overrun what remains of the 599km Syrian-Iraqi border, with the help of troops from Great Britain and Jordan.
This was largely in response to an early May military drill by the US and Jordanian militaries called “Eager Lion.” Although annually practised since 2010, the troop build-up raised eyebrows in Iran, where generals saw it as a prelude to a massive operation by the Jordanian Army, aimed at carving a safe zone out of southern Syria and taking the remainder of the Syrian- Iraqi border.
More than half of it is in the hands of US-backed Kurdish forces while the strategic frontier city of Abu Kamal is occupied by the Islamic State (ISIS). Iranians worried that, if the Americans manage to take what was left through their proxies, this would sever the Damascus-Baghdad Highway, which is the only route for Hezbollah arms and money transported by land from Iran to Lebanon, first through Iraq and then via Syria.
In response the Syrian Army announced Operation Grand Dawn, officially aimed at liberating the eastern desert from ISIS. It is a multifaceted operation involving Syrian government troops, the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and Hezbollah — with Russian air cover, of course.
It aims to retake three strategic cities in the clutches of ISIS: Abu Kamal, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, all on the shores of the Euphrates.
Racing against time to reach Abu Kamal first are the US backed rebels, currently known as the Maghawir al-Thawra (Commandos of the Revolution). This group, formerly known as the New Syrian Army, attempted to take Abu Kamal in 2016 from their bases in Jordan, parachuting fighters into the ISIS held city but who were quickly rounded up and defeated.
It was one of the worst US-backed operations in the conflict, prompting fighters with the New Syrian Army to lie low, before regrouping and re launching themselves as Maghawir al-Thawra for a second round in Abu Kamal earmarked for this summer.
Maghaweer al-Thawra fighters hold the desert hills from the border city of al-Tanf to the countryside of Deir ez-Zor. They transformed al-Tanf into a hub for US-backed Syrian fighters, using it as a springboard for the battle of Deir ez-Zor. If they manage to take the oil-rich city and Abu Kamal, these troops hope to create a shadow buffer between Deir ez-Zor and the city of Homs, preventing its penetration by either ISIS or Hezbollah.
This strategy is based on how far the Americans are willing to support them — and to pick a fight on Syrian territory with both Russia and Iran. Apart from lip service and a ceremonial strike on Syrian weaponry west of al-Tanf, the Americans have shown no signal that they are willing to walk the extra mile to wrestle the border from Moscow, Tehran and Damascus.
They have also shown no reaction to the launch of Operation Grand Dawn, which is being billed as the largest in the 7-year conflict, against ISIS. Government troops have retaken more than 1,300 sq.km of area in the Syrian Desert, between the ancient city of Palmyra and the eastern Kalamoon district. They have also reclaimed the Palmyra-Damascus Highway and are heading for al-Tanf, hoping to secure the triangle of the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi borders. The Trump White House has done nothing to stop them.
In Damascus, the feeling is that the Americans will not lift a finger to help their proxies, being satisfied with securing their share of the Syrian patchwork, which covers everything east of the Euphrates River and includes pockets of Kurdish self-rule areas, now held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the only militia on the Syrian battlefield still receiving heavy US arms and military assistance.
Seemingly, the Turks are not as unhappy as they seem with Operation Grand Dawn since they are furious with the Trump White House for refusing to end its support for Kurdish militias, especially the SDF. During his trip to Washington, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried — with little luck — to talk US President Donald Trump into abandoning the Kurds. Trump sees them as vital partners in the war on terror and, not only did he turn down Erdogan’s request, he seems determined to empower the militias further.
To obstruct the project, Erdogan put his full weight behind the four “de-conflict zones” that were agreed upon at ceasefire talks in Astana. That agreement, co-signed by Iran and Russia, agreed to end hostilities east of Damascus, north of Homs, south of Daraa and in Idlib in north-western Syria, basically the four remaining battlefields in Syria.
Relieved from fighting in those four territories, the Syrian Army has regrouped and marched with full weight towards the Iraqi border, seemingly assured by the Turks, via Russia, that they won’t get attacked on other fronts while doing so.
It was Erdogan’s way of telling the Americans: “If the Kurdish project does not end, I can and will create havoc for the Americans elsewhere in the Syrian battlefield, even if it means letting the regime secure a victory on the border.”
He wouldn’t mind it, only if it would help limit Kurdish ambitions to the Syrian north-east. What matters to him is that the Kurds are kept away from his borders and denied the honours of expelling ISIS from Deir ez-Zor, Abu Kamal and, certainly, their de facto capital of Raqqa.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.
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