Syria’s Cauldron: One Step Away from Major Showdown

Source: The Strategic Culture Foundation, by  Peter Korzun

Syrian rebels from Eastern Lions and Ahmad al-Abdo Army formations – the elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – state that they are «intensely» attacking Iranian-backed pro-government militias in the eastern Syrian desert in an operation dubbed «The Land is Ours». The forces’ strength is around four thousand. The main enemies are the Islamic State (IS), Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Syrian government-allied forces. The operation is conducted near Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan. This time, the mission is to squeeze the SAA and its allies out from the desert areas.

Supplied from Jordan, the opposition plans to ultimately advance further into Syria’s territory. Combat operations areas encompass the de-escalation zones proposed by Russia, Turkey and Iran where ceasefire was expected to be established on June 6. In peace talks in early May, Russia, Iran and Turkey signed an agreement to create four de-confliction zones in Syria. This deal was supposed to apply to the US as well, but the Trump administration has refused to recognize the legitimacy of these de-escalation zones—even while using them to justify attacks on Syrian government-allied forces.

Evidently, one of the goals pursued by the escalation of hostilities is to demonstrate that the armed opposition is a force to reckon with at a time the crisis management talks are held in Astana and Geneva. Obviously, this is an attempt to subvert the ongoing international peace efforts.

At first glance, the mission appears to be a dubious venture as the opposition forces advance into desert with no urban areas. However, the goal is not to seize populated areas but rather to undermine the Russia-backed initiative aimed at establishing de-escalation zones. The opposition has decided that the time is right for changing the tide of war into its favor. The forces can advance more rapidly in desert as the SAA presence there is not as strong as in other areas.

Another goal is to cut off the Syrian Army and the Shia Hezbollah movement supply routes from Iran. It’s the south and the south-west of Syria where the decisive battles are fought today. On May 18, the US sent aircraft to strike Syrian regular army (the Syrian Arab Army-SAA) vehicles near al-Tanf, an army base where special forces are training Syrian militias. No doubt, the airstrike and “the Land is Ours” offensive are not isolated events.

It should be noted that the United States has bombed Syrian government-allied forces three times in just eight months. Does the U.S. have the right to tell Syria where its forces can go in its own country and strike them at will? Can it be done without benefitting IS terrorists? Still, that’s what the American military does while US officials condemn other actors involved in Syria’s conflict.

Meanwhile, US Special Forces have set up a forward base at Al-Zukf in the Syrian Desert, 70km northwest of the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border triangle and the Al Tanf crossing, which is controlled by US, Western allied and Jordanian special forces, together with the Revolutionary Commando – a US-trained Syrian rebel unit. The mission is to keep the SAA and Hezbollah units away from the Al-Tanf crossing and prepare a springboard to attack Abu Kamal, located at a distance of 200km northwest of Al-Tanf. The overriding goal is to prevent Syrian and pro-Syrian forces from gaining control of the Syrian-Iraqi border, leaving Syria with no direct land route to connect it with Iran through Iraq.

The opposition takes other actions to thwart the peace efforts. Maghawir Al-Thawra Army, an international-coalition-backed division of the Free Syrian Army, announced the establishment of a military base for training and maneuvering in al-Zakf area of the Syrian desert. Formally the declared goal is to prepare for liberation of Abu Kamal from Islamic State (IS). Instructors from the US-led coalition are present at the base for training and supervision.

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