ISIS provides a single common enemy where foreign interventionists in the conflict will increasingly find themselves elbowing for space.
By Kabir Taneja
On 18 May, US-led coalition forces conducted air strikes in the east Syrian region of Al-Tanf, close to the country’s borders with Iraq and Jordan. However, these strikes were not against ISIS, but on the contrary highlight the various other intricacies of the Syrian conflict, of which ISIS is fast becoming a minority stake holder in as it loses territory at an unprecedented pace. The conflict is now diverging into two sectors, east and west of the Euphrates River, fast becoming a defacto conflict border.
The strikes were against pro-Assad, mostly Shiite militias who as per information released by the Americans, were predominantly Iranian proxy groups that had infiltrated the de-confliction zone established around the military facilities in Al-Tanf. As per accounts, the movement towards the American facilities also included Syrian Armed Forces (SAA) and Hezbollah fighters. The base, that is located near the Al Waleed crossing, one of the three official border checkpoints between Iraq and Syria, was captured by ISIS in 2015, but re-captured by Iraqi forces backed by the US Special Forces and Pentagon trained and aided militias such as the Maghawir a-Thwara in 2016. As per some reports, the US has used this base to train anti-Assad forces such as the a-Thwara and others, and aided the development of the base using air protection via combat aircraft, MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones based at the Al-Azraq air base in Jordan.
The bombings of 18 May highlight a dimension of the Syrian conflict that is expected to become increasingly common, where the US and the Western coalition will consistently find themselves engaging with pro-Assad, Iranian and even Russian and Russia backed forces as they try to establish a political narrative around the future of the Syrian political leadership. In Al-Tanf, to put it diplomatically, the US is increasingly finding itself indirectly battling Iran, which has militias, Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and so on in healthy numbers helping and aiding the Assad government on the ground.
The Al-Tanf incident, and the developing situation in the surrounding oil rich Deir Ezzor region, has only escalated further, with both militias and ISIS operating a heavy presence. As per data currently publicly available, the US strikes destroyed four SAA tanks, 8 Technicals (pickup vehicles improvised to carry machine-guns and other such weapons), one Soviet era light-armor ZSU-23-4 “Shilka” anti-aircraft system and dozens of combatants. As per principle, military escalation in an already fraught war zone is easy while de-escalation becomes much more difficult. As a reaction to these events, the US moved two batteries of M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) from Jordan. This deployment also comes on the back of confirmation that USAF F-15E fighter jets on 13 June shot down an Iranian Shahed-129 drone for dropping an ammunition within the confines of the 55 km de-confliction zone around Al-Tanf. On June 20, a USAF F-15E once again shot down another Shahed-129 around the same region, as the drone did not deviate from its course and was close to entering the de-confliction zone. It remains unclear whether militias such as Hezbollah operate these drones, or the IRGC operates them directly.
The politics of Syrian border control is one that is getting Syria’s neighbors edgy, and involved. As Iranian backed militias make advances towards territories vacated by ISIS in Syria, others in the vicinity such as Israel are getting skittish at the prospects of having Tehran in the form of Hezbollah right at their doorsteps, specifically in disputed regions such as the Golan Heights. Jerusalem has made it known to the Assad government in Damascus, using the mediation of Moscow, of its concerns including highlighting ‘red lines’. Earlier, in March and April, Israel conducted airstrikes in Syria, including around Damascus airport, allegedly targeting supplies of advanced weapons for Hezbollah fighting in and around the capital. Syria retaliated, firing missiles towards the inbound Israeli aircraft and the border region itself, with one projectile intercepted by Israeli advanced anti-missile shields surrounding Jerusalem.
Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the rhetoric against Tehran has only increased over the past three months, which in turn could escalate operations against Iranian backed Shiite militias in Syria. This escalation would not just be designed by the US, but others such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel and so on as well (Saudi Arabia and Israel, historic foes, have previously corroborated their stand against Iran). It is also imperative to remember here that the Pentagon will find it easier to sell a harsher military tone in Syria to Trump than it did to Obama. Trump’s recent sojourn to Saudi Arabia where he chastised Iran for state sponsored terrorism, and in return Saudi Arabia took the stick to fellow GCC member Qatar over a host of issues, including Doha’s unavailability to tow Riyadh’s hardline against Tehran offered a quagmire of views on what exactly America’s Syria policy is. As a result, Iran could double down on its military strategy in Syria, glimpses of which are now starting to show more openly.
On June 19, an American F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter aircraft shot down a Syrian Sukhoi 22 (Su 22) near Ja’Din, a town just west of Raqqa, IS’s stronghold in Syria where US backed forces launched a large operation. At the same time, the American backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance fighting ISIS in the Ja’Din area, and largely controlling the said town. However, after militias allied with the SAA allegedly attacked the SDF with help of Syrian air support and driving them out, American warplanes in the region reacted and shot down the Syrian jet in “accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of coalition-partnered forces,” as per a statement released by the Combined Joint Task Force. This was the first American air kill since 1999, when a USAF F-16CJ shot down a lone Yugoslav MiG-29 over Kosovo.
The Iranians have been responsible for a lot of upkeep for Syria’s air force, which has defied many odds to keep operating across the airspace. This has included providing fuel supplies, re-launching Syrian armament factories to produce crude copies of original Russian armament and later, even procuring more sophisticated parachute assisted bombs. Whether these were provided by Iran or Russia remains unclear. However, Russia has backed both Syria and Iran on US placement of HIMARS in Al-Tanf, and strongly condemned the shooting down of the Su 22, adding that Russian jets in the region “may” treat coalition aircraft as targets.
Even as ISIS is reigned in territorially, it is expected to persist as an ideology and terror group in the future, orchestrating attacks in a more guerilla format than the formalised structures it has developed over the past three years. Dr. Shiraz Maher, Director at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) called upon the ability of ISIS to exist as a solid, liquid or gas, and their ideology not being a static issue. However, loss of influence and territory means a governance vacuum, one that may cause many more battles within the Syrian civil war for religious and political supremacy. Furthermore, many militias in the region currently straining all their resources in either fighting ISIS or the Assad regime will soon have, at least geographically, more freedom to attempt to pursue their own individual agendas, whether that might be governance of territory, promotion of their own brand of Islam, attempts to re-design the sectarian landscape and so on.
The next phase of Syrian war is possibly going to be more complex than the situation is as it stands today. While ISIS provides a single common enemy for most of the both regional and foreign actors involved, the race to capture the political narrative in Syria is entering a critical phase where foreign interventionists in the conflict such as the US, Russia and Iran will increasingly find themselves elbowing for space, leading to more ‘close calls’ and even direct military skirmishes.