Scenarios for a US military action in eastern Syria collide with local factors
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
The United States has settled the controversy over military operations targeting pro-Iranian militias in Syria operating on the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Despite the official US denial, it is not possible to be certain about Washington’s mechanism for managing its future strategy and plans in the region.
The press secretary of the US Department of Defense, Brigadier General of the US Air Force Pat Ryder, said on August 17 that protecting the Syrian-Iraqi border is not among the tasks of the US forces present in Syria.
No ‘decisive’ strategy
Samer al-Ahmad, a fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies and an expert on eastern Syria affairs, believes that the United States is not managing a decisive strategy in Syria other than fighting the Islamic State (IS) group and the organizations it considers “terrorist.”
The US strategic direction can be sought in the recently announced sanctions against warlords in Syria, including prominent figures in the Syrian regime or in the rest of the opposition factions.
In terms of the American presence in eastern Syria, it openly aims to fight the Islamic State, but it also has another clear goal: to deny the regime and its backers, Russia and Iran, from benefiting from the resources in eastern Syria.
Al-Ahmad added that the clear American goals in Syria can be listed above, but if we talk about the possibility of launching military action against Iranian militias officially by the American forces, this means changing Washington’s strategy in the Middle East based on fighting “terrorism.” This is currently out of the question, to say the least.
The Omran’s think tank fellow told Enab Baladi that promoting this military operation is limited to securing a local popular incubator for the US forces deployed in the region, which can be relied upon in the event of US-Turkish understandings in order to remove or weaken the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from eastern Syria.
America is trying, through the new popular incubator, to ensure that its ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), does not collapse as a local force affiliated with the United States, and to strengthen it with a reliable clan factional force in this region to achieve the US strategy, i.e., depriving the regime and its supporters of resources east of the Euphrates.
At the same time, it is not possible to ignore the American efforts to confront the Russian-Iranian project with the participation of the regime, which is an axis trying to put pressure on the United States in Syria on the security level to push it to withdraw from the region, according to al-Ahmad.
Director of the Germany-based Geostrategic Network for Studies, Ibrahim Kaban, believes that Washington is seeking to reduce the Iranian role in Syria by putting pressure on Iranian militias in the eastern and southern regions.
He told Enab Baladi that the regime will be the biggest loser in the potential pressure policy that the United States is putting towards Iran, given the size of the Iranian geographic tide in the east of the country.
Kaban added that the Syrian regime will confine its presence to specific areas and thus will head towards economic suffocation and internal collapse, given the contributions made by Iran to support its economy through the road it controls from Iran to Beirut, passing through Iraq and Syria.
In July 2021, a senior official in the administration of US President Joe Biden said that 900 US soldiers will remain in Syria to provide support and advice to the SDF in its war against the Islamic State group.
At the time, the American Politico newspaper quoted a senior Biden administration official as saying that “roughly 900 US troops, including a number of Green Berets, will remain in Syria to continue supporting and advising the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State — the same role they have played since the American-led intervention in 2014.”
Since the US military presence in Syria was limited to 900 soldiers, the pace of talk about US reinforcements to Syria has varied, but no official announcement has been issued by Washington about the nature of this presence, an increase in the number of soldiers, or a change in the nature of the tasks.
Does the US strategy change?
Al-Ahmad, the fellow of Omran Center for Studies, believes that the question that must be asked here is: Has the United States really begun to change its strategy towards the regime from depriving it of resources and suffocating it economically and politically to pressuring it militarily and on the ground by dragging it into a war of attrition?
Al-Ahmad told Enab Baladi that the United States’ use of clan power in the region would be a “war of attrition” for the Iranian militias and the regime, but it would also be a “war of attrition” for the local tribes because igniting the fuse of this battle means entering into a crisis and that the conflict is long.
This type of “war of attrition” will carry with it a “clan division,” as Iran exploits some clans, while others oppose the Syrian regime, while clans with a different orientation oppose the SDF and the regime together.
In a study published by the Raman Center for Research and Consultancy, titled “Scenarios and Obstacles to the Expected US Military Operation towards Separating the Iraqi-Syrian Border,” three possible scenarios were presented.
The first scenario focused on an American military operation involving local factions, starting from the US bases east of the Euphrates, especially the al-Omar oil field and Koniko gas field bases, with the participation of the Free Syria Army in the al-Tanf garrison, thus linking these bases to each other and blocking the Iranian project crossing the border from Iraq to Damascus.
However, the first scenario carries many obstacles and is also conditional on a major escalation of US forces and a large presence of them, which is not currently available.
The second scenario is controlling the city of al-Bukamal and the Iraqi-Syrian border from the Syrian interior, and it requires the participation of large numbers of forces from the Syrian side and coordination with the Iraqi government.
In this scenario, the operation aims to cut off the Iranian forces from inside Syria and weaken the Iranian project in Syria by controlling al-Bukamal, its main entrance to Syria.
This project faces other obstacles, the most prominent of which is the failure to guarantee the acceptance of the SDF to engage in this type of operations against Iran.
The third scenario includes a military operation against the seven villages controlled by Iran and the regime forces east of the Euphrates, which constitute the spearhead of potential Iranian operations against the American bases, namely: al-Husseiniya, al-Salihiya, Hatla, Marat, Mazloum, Khasham, and Tabiyat Jazira.
This scenario is considered the most likely for several reasons, the most important of which is that it is not costly on the human and logistical level for Washington.
Al-Ahmad believes that America’s control with local allies over areas of eastern Syria is not a difficult task on the military level, in light of the American superiority, but at the same time, it will result in a long “war of attrition” in which the people of the region will be its fuel.
All previous scenarios carry with them many obstacles, according to al-Ahmad, but in part, the fact that the SDF announced that it will not participate in any battle against the Iranians can be seen as a major obstacle, as it is the first ally of Washington in Syria.
Al-Ahmad believes that the interests of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is linked to Iran, are preventing the SDF from entering this battle at the present time. On the other hand, it is not guaranteed that Turkey will agree to open this battle if it views it as an expansion of the area of influence of the Kurdish groups in the east of the country.
Badr Mulla Rashid, director of the Raman Research Center and an expert in Kurdish affairs, confirmed to Enab Baladi that the possibility of the SDF agreeing to participate in the military operation cannot be certain due to the Iranian relations with the PKK-affiliated organizations, and the reflection of the SDF’s participation on those relations.
Mulla Rashid added that the relationship between Iran and the PKK extends geographically from inside Iranian territory to the Qandil Mountains and the Sulaymaniyah governorate in Iraqi Kurdistan and extends to the Sinjar-Shingal Mountains to reach the al-Hasakah governorate in the Syrian side.
The geopolitical and security relationship is one of the multiple lines linking Iran with the PKK, so any American operation in eastern or southern Syria will be rejected by the SDF, which was confirmed by the director of the media center in the SDF, Farhad al-Shami.
Mulla Rashid referred to the event of the dismissal of the former commander of the Domestic Security Forces (Asayish), Jiwan Ibrahim, in 2017, following his statement during an interview with the Saudi Okaz newspaper that “Iran’s project is more dangerous than the Islamic state, and we have no objection to the Peshmerga entering Rojava,” and Ibrahim has been absent from the scene since then.
The director of the SDF’s media office told the Kurdish Al-Yaum TV channel on August 17 that his faction will not engage in any military operation against Iran in Syria, pointing out that its main mission is to “maintain security and stability in the Syrian arena.”
Shami added that rumors about a military operation by the International Coalition against Iran were not proposed or discussed with the International Coalition, indicating that the SDF is not about to ignite any front, as its mission focuses on fighting IS sleeper cells.
Shami added that “raising such rumors aims to divert attention from pursuing and eradicating (IS) cells and thwarting their strategic projects in attempts to revive again.”
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