With ISIS on the brink of defeat, Tehran and Damascus say the next phase of the conflict in Syria is for the “resistance forces” to confront the U.S. military and its local allies, particularly the Syrian Democratic Force (S.D.F.). They have dialed up anti-American propaganda and warn that a “direct confrontation” with the U.S. will be necessary if Washington decides to keep its troops in Syria for the long haul.
Seizure of Abu Kamal
On Thursday, the Syrian Army and Iranian-led militia forces claimed that they had liberated the strategic town of Abu Kamal near the Iraqi border – although some reports suggest that the fight inside and around Abu Kamal is still raging on. But there was little doubt that pro-regime forces reached the outskirts of Abu Kamal first, outmaneuvering the U.S. and its S.D.F. allies as they were also trying to capture the border town in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor Province and deprive Iran from carving out a land bridge to Beirut through Syria and Iraq. What helped the pro-Damascus forces to reach Abu Kamal first and encircle the area was the entry of Iranian-backed Iraqi militiamen into Abu Kamal from the Iraqi side. Iran-linked Iraqi groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba had participated in the liberation of the Iraqi border town of al-Qa’im near Abu Kamal recently.
But from Iran’s perspective, the race for Abu Kamal and surrounding regions in eastern Syria is not entirely over yet. Iranian officials and media outlets accuse the U.S. military and its Syrian allies of aiding Islamic State terrorists to recapture Abu Kamal. They further warn that the Syrian Army and Iranian proxies may have to directly confront the U.S. and S.D.F. in Deir Ezzor and beyond, including Raqqa.
The pro-Damascus forces may not have captured Abu Kamal completely yet, but Tehran is already celebrating its seizure as a strategic prize. “Abu Kamal is the last bastion of Daesh [ISIS] in Syria’s border region… The liberation of this city also means the completion of the land corridor for the resistance. For the first time, Tehran will have land access to the Mediterranean coasts and Beirut, which is an unprecedented development in Iran’s several-thousand-year history,” Javan Online, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.), wrote on November 15.
The article, entitled “America’s Dilemma in Syria after End of Daesh,” which was republished in several other I.R.G.C. and conservative outlets, claimed that the United States unsuccessfully tried its utmost to prevent Iran from establishing the corridor by directing Islamic State fighters toward Abu Kamal and other regions in Deir Ezzor such as al-Mayadin. It also alleged that the U.S. struck a deal with ISIS over Syria’s largest oilfield in the east. “This oilfield accounts for 88 percent of Syria’s oil production and is very significant for Syria’s reconstruction and self-sufficiency,” the article added. “By establishing control over this oilfield, the Americans have taken hold of one of Syria’s key economic arteries, so that, in the most optimistic scenario, they can use it as a leverage to seek concessions in any post-war political negotiations, and in the worst-case scenario, they can paralyze Syria and bring about the de-facto division of the country.”
New phase of war
While ISIS is not entirely defeated in Syria, Iranian officials and I.R.G.C. outlets are already beating the drum of war with U.S.-backed S.D.F. forces. Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, recently said that that pro-Syrian regime forces will soon take action to capture the city of Raqqa, also cautioning that the U.S. is seeking to divide Syria by positioning its forces east of the Euphrates river. Similarly, Damascus has also dialed up its rhetoric against the U.S. military and S.D.F.
The article in Javan speculated that the Trump administration has not yet decided whether to keep troops in Syria after the fight against the Islamic State is over. This is despite the fact that U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Monday that Washington will maintain a long-term military presence in Syria in order to prevent ISIS from reemerging and to set conditions for a political settlement in the country.
“On the one hand, it is difficult for them to give back the areas captured from Daesh, including Raqqa, to Damascus, because this will be another victory for Iran and Hezbollah,” Javan stressed. “On the other hand, they are not willing to accept the cost of a long-term presence in northeastern Syria,” it added. “If the Americans decide to continue their military presence in Syria, it would mean that the war of resistance has entered a new phase and the ultimate goal of it will be to compel the Americans to leave Syria’s northeast.” On Monday, Fars News Agency, another amjor I.R.G.C.-affiliated outlet, also warned that a “direct confrontation” between pro-Damascus forces and the U.S.-backed S.D.F. is now “more likely” than anytime in the past.