Iranian-Backed Forces Advancing to Southeast Syria despite U.S. Warning

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | May 24, 2017
Iranian-Backed Forces Advancing to Southeast Syria despite U.S. Warning

The U.S. air strike last week targeting Iranian-led forces in southern Syria signaled escalating tension between Washington and Tehran over the six-year conflict in Syria. The U.S. military said it carried out the raid because an Iran-directed convoy was advancing toward a “de-confliction zone” near the al-Tanf region, where the U.S. military is training Syrian opposition forces to fight the Islamic State. The militia forces reportedly did not respond to U.S. warnings.  The air strike – the first such action by the U.S. military against Iranian-linked forces in Syria – was meant to send a strong signal to the Iranian-supported forces that they will not be allowed to reach the Iraqi border. But reports in the Iranian media suggest that the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) and its proxy groups in Syria are still determined to challenge the presence of the U.S. military forces along Syria’s borders with Jordan and Iraq. This raises the likelihood more direct confrontation between Iran-controlled forces and the U.S. military and its allies in the region.

Iran-led forces advancing toward al-Tanf

The Iranian media reported today that the Syrian Army and Iranian proxies are continuing their operations in the Syrian Desert and are heading toward the border region of al-Tanf. “The resistance forces are making efforts to reach the al-Tanf region, which is occupied by the Free Syrian Army,” wrote I.R.G.C.-affiliated Fars News Agency. It added that these forces are 25 miles away from al-Tanf. Reports in the Arab press also suggest that Iranian-led forces embedded with the Syrian Army are marching ahead to Syria’s eastern and southern border regions. Another Fars report claimed that the Syrian Army has also deployed forces in al-Suwayda region close to the Jordanian border and “managed to advance more towards al-Tanf border-crossing in Southern Homs to foil a US-led plan for occupying Southern Syria.”

Security belt

The I.R.G.C. media claims that the U.S. military has beefed up its presence in border regions in southern and eastern Syria in order to block the Iranian-supported forces to link the land routes between Syria and Iraq. “America, Jordan and England have taken measures to create a security belt along the Syrian-Iraqi border. The aim of this operation is to counter the resistance front and cut off the land route between Iraq and Syria,” wrote Fars News Agency.

But an even bigger concern for the I.R.G.C. appears to be U.S. support for anti-regime Syrian opposition groups in southeastern Syria. Reports and commentary in the Iranian media shows that Tehran believes that Washington and its allies have a broader plan to train and equip rebel groups to reverse the latest territorial gains of the Bashar al-Assad regime and its foreign allies under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State. “In southern Syria along the Syrian-Jordanian border, a lot of military activities are detected which indicate the U.S. and its allies are soon launching an operation,” warned a report in Fars News Agency. “The puzzle for the crucial stage of the war is near completion. And this battle will take place in the Syrian Desert and this country’s borders with Iraq. This region is particularly important for Damascus and America has started the war by preventing the road link of these two countries,” it added.

Another report in Fars News Agency also cautioned that “America wants to come victorious this time in the Syrian Desert.” Iranian leaders often claim that the Islamic Republic and its regional allies have defeated the United States and its allies in Syria and Iraq. Fars continued: “That is the reason a group called Maghawir al-Thawara is gaining ground in the Syrian Desert so that it can seize some areas in al-Tanf desert and southern parts of Deir ezZour,” it added. “These moves are part of America’s efforts to completely occupy the Syrian Desert, which connects the Homs Province to Deir ezZour.” After achieving this, the article speculated, the U.S.-led forces will advance toward Abu Kamal, a city in the Deir ez-Zour governorate in eastern Syria close to the Iraqi border.

Iraqi front

According to Iranian and Iraqi media, parallel to efforts in Syria, I.R.G.C.-controlled Shiite militia groups in Iraq are simultaneously conducting a military operation – dubbed Muhammad Rasulullah – with the aim of seizing strategic regions and controlling the land route from western Mosul to the Syrian border. According to Fars News Agency, the U.S. military opposed the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces’ advance toward the Syrian border. But it claimed that the seizure of al-Hadr, al-Qairwan and other strategic areas in western Mosul by Iran-backed units within the P.M.F. has now made it possible for them to achieve that goal – although it maintained that there are still “political and logistical obstacles.”

Iran’s motives

The spokesman of Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya – the Lions of the East Army, a Syrian rebel group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army in the south – said that Iran-backed militia forces and the Syrian Army are pursuing two objectives in the Syrian Desert: First, they want to bring under siege rebel groups associated with the Free Syrian Army; and second, they want to consolidate control over air and military bases under their control in the region. Rebel forces have also warned that the Syrian Army and Iranian-backed militia are trying to gain control over the strategic Damascus-Baghdad highway to allow free movements of Iraqi militias into Syria and maintain a sustainable weapons supply route for Iranian weapons in the region. Commentary and reports in the Iranian media also indicate that Tehran is attempting to secure a land corridor for access to the Mediterranean Sea by passing through Syria and Iraq. And Tehran sees the presence of U.S. forces in the region as the biggest obstacle to its plan.