Iran arming militants for “lethal attacks,” US to copy Iraq’s “Sahwat” in Syria

Joint military exercises between the Free Syria Army and the US-led International Coalition - May 20, 2023 (Twitter/International Coalition)

Joint military exercises between the Free Syria Army and the US-led International Coalition - May 20, 2023 (Twitter/International Coalition)


Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa

While analysts rule out any military action in the short term, indications have emerged in recent weeks that warn of a military escalation in northeastern Syria between the US forces present in the region and Iran, which is also present through its militias.

At the end of May, the US acknowledged sending the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to its bases in al-Omar oil field and Conico in eastern Syria.

HIMARS systems have gained global notoriety as a result of their effective use against Russia by Ukrainian forces. The mobile artillery rocket systems are mounted on a six-wheeled vehicle and operated by a crew of three. Guided rockets launched by HIMARS are used for medium-range precision strikes up to 70 km, according to MEE.

It was developed by the American company Lockheed Martin, but the official statements said that it is “to protect the American forces.”

On the other hand, US government leaks came out through The Washington Post in early June, stating that Iran is arming fighters in Syria to start a new phase of “deadly attacks” against US forces in Syria.

On June 1, The Washington Post revealed that “Iran is arming militants in Syria for a new phase of lethal attacks against US troops in the country, while also working with Russia on a broader strategy to drive Americans from the region, intelligence officials and leaked classified documents say.”

“Iran and its allies are building and training forces to use more powerful armor-piercing roadside bombs intended specifically to target US military vehicles and kill US personnel,” according to classified intelligence reports obtained by The Washington Post.

Such attacks would constitute an escalation of Iran’s long-running campaign of using proxy militias to launch rocket and drone strikes on US forces in Syria, the leading US newspaper said.

What is behind the reinforcements?

Numerous Iranian militias are deployed in northeastern Syria, in contrast to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have the greatest influence in the region which includes several ethnicities, including Kurds and Arabs.

The Iranian escalation has intensified since last March 23, when an American civilian contractor was killed, and 12 Americans were wounded at a US base in northeastern Syria in an attack by a drone, which US officials said was of “Iranian origin.”

Samer al-Ahmad, a journalist and researcher who covers the eastern Euphrates region, told Enab Baladi that the latest US reinforcements, represented by the HIMARS system, came in response to the US internal situation, which started talking about deadly threats to the US forces present in Syria, and the emergence of media reports indicating a deficiency in air force defense systems when the American contractor was killed.

Regarding the possibility of a military escalation, al-Ahmad ruled out a direct American confrontation with the Iranian militias at the present time and limited the response in the event of an Iranian targeting of their bases, based on the fact that the American administration is “not encouraged” to enter into a confrontation with the Iranians.

Nicholas A. Heras, Director for the Strategy and Innovation Department at the New Lines Institute, told Forbes magazine on June 7 that the US “intends to keep its garrison in northeastern Syria for a long time, and this American garrison needs strong protection so that it can respond quickly to any threat on the ground, which is what the highly mobile artillery missile system provides.”

Ryan Bohl, an analyst specializing in Middle East and North African issues at the risk intelligence firm (RANE), believes that this system will most likely be directed against Iranian-backed forces targeting American soldiers.

He said, “There is an indirect deterrence through which the United States shows its willingness to send high-value assets to Syria so that Russia and the Syrian regime see that the method of harassing the US will not push it to withdraw its forces,” according to his interview with Forbes.

For his part, Rashid Hourani, a researcher in military affairs at the Jusoor Center for Studies, told Enab Baladi that the US reinforcements aim to protect its strategic presence in the region and not specifically to confront the Iranian militias that it can confront by supporting its allies (SDF) on the ground.

Hourani ruled out America’s military action against Iran, while he expected the United States to increase training and arming its allies in the region (Free Syria Army, SDF) to curb Iran, especially since Iran is suffering from “difficult” internal conditions.

Despite the success of the HIMARS system in Ukraine, the researcher in military affairs explained that the theater of hostilities in eastern Syria is not measured at all with Ukraine in terms of the warring parties on the one hand and the weapon used on the other hand.

The researcher based his opinion on the fact that the SDF does not possess the military competencies that qualify it to receive this type of weapon, which requires special training in order to use it and maintain it technically, because the SDF is no different from other local military parties, despite the joint military exercises with the US forces.

Iran has worked during the last period to “feel the pulse” of the United States and its response to the Iranian escalation, benefiting from the rejection of Russia, Turkey, and the Syrian regime for its presence in Syria and from the repercussions of its escalatory policies within the American interior and its decision-making corridors, such as the decision put forward by some American representatives regarding the need to withdraw the US forces from Syria and Iran is trying to accumulate these repercussions and build on them, according to Hourani.

“New combat interface”

The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, accused Washington of working to create the so-called “Free Syria Army” in Raqqa governorate as a copy of the one it formed in al-Tanf, according to what was reported by the Russian Sputnik Agency on June 2.

Regarding the formation of this “army,” the agency said that it will consist of Arab tribesmen from the governorates of al-Hasakah, Deir Ezzor, and Raqqa, to give the full Arab tribal character to this “army,” provided that its leadership is completely separate from the leadership of the SDF forces and their well-known military councils, which for example includes the al-Sanadid Forces and the Deir Ezzor Military Council, which includes members of the al-Akidat and Bakara tribes.

Al-Ahmad, the eastern Euphrates expert, told Enab Baladi that through field follow-up, Iran has begun to pursue a strategy of shifting part of its battle in Syria to the east after it greatly strengthened its presence in Damascus and its environs.

The Iranian expansion was followed by an increase during the past weeks in shipments of weapons and their quality, which arrived through Qamishli airport, on regime planes, in a “disguised manner,” to the Iranian militia headquarters in Qamishli and al-Hasakah.

These Iranian moves aim to attack and monitor the American forces and launch “popular resistance” against them by “recruiting tribal cells” or trying to attract notables of some clans by supporting them, organizing frequent visits to the Iranian city of Qom, and meeting with the Iranian ambassador in Damascus, according to the expert of east Euphrates region.

On the other hand, the US is working to establish a new line of confrontation against the Iranian militias in Deir Ezzor and al-Hasakah, based on the Arab tribes present in the region, al-Ahmad said.

The Turkish Anadolu Agency reported on June 2 that a high-ranking delegation from the US army met with Bandar Hamidi al-Daham, the commander of the SDF-affiliated al-Sanadid Forces, in order to move in coordination with the Free Syria Army in the al-Tanf area on the border triangle between Syria, Iraq, and Jordan.

The researcher on issues east of the Euphrates, who is from the region, said that the al-Sanadid Forces are an Arab tribal force from the Arab Shammar tribe present in the region.

“The importance of the meeting comes because it took place far from the SDF because the Iranians are appealing to the clans by saying that they are protecting the Arab component in the face of the US-backed Kurdish separatist” forces, but such meetings refute the Iranian claim,” al-Ahmad said.

Through these meetings, America is trying to copy the Iraqi experience, when it sought the help of the Arab tribes in the regions of Anbar and established “Sahwat” forces, a reference to awakening councils to uproot al-Qaeda-linked groups, according to al-Ahmad.

There is a possibility to achieve this experience to eliminate Iranian influence in light of the fact that the clans in eastern Syria are ready to fight Iran, especially since they were involved in the opposition factions and do not accept changing their identity and influencing the history of the region and its components, al-Ahmad concludes.



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