(a) In the remote, deserted and extremely sparsely populated area of the Syrian Desert, notably around the tri-border area with Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Jordan, the impact of the civil war has been relatively moderate with rare high-intensity waves generated by intertwined moments or actions from other battlefronts. The area was sharply captured by ISIS since late 2014 in order to secure the supply lines from the loyal Iraqi region of Anbar in order to fuel military operations in Homs and Rural Damascus.
(b) Since 2015 the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) has began cooperating with the Jordanian counter-parts and British allies to set up joint installations on the Kingdom’s territory to vet, train and later deploy & assists local rebel fighters. The move was both to support the uprising against the Assad regime and to secure the borders of Jordan and Iraq through native forces.
(c) The effort was slow and weary, but throughout 2016 progress has been made so that in early 2017 the Jordanian border to be completely liberated from ISIS control. A critical point is the Ruqtbah refugee camp which was periodically targeted by the jihadist fighters and their internal dynamic was dominated by their agents.
(d) The paramount of these military operations was the capture of al-Tanf, a Syrian border checkpoint leading into Iraq’s Anbar region. Al-Tanf is one of the only installations and structures built in the area that can project control and assure a constant presence. Without these outposts, it is physically impossible to secure an arid, depopulated and remote desert area. Several swift ISIS counter-attacks followed but after a US-Jordanian cross-border operation, the status quo of al-Tanf was retained.
(e) As the United States-led Coalition revived the border checkpoint and the water well, several divergent actors as ISIS and the Iranian-backed Loyalists kept challenging the local Rebel presence.
Key Assumptions and Prospected Objectives
(i) The Iranian government is racing against the clock to capture the al-Tanf border area from Rebel hands, a strategic intention catalyzed by two leit-motifs:
-Assuming control of the borders and securing the area surrounding the capital will enforce the Assad’s regime claims of sovereignty and governance legitimacy.
–Establishing the ‘Shi’a Crescent’ strategic prospect: creating a land corridor of influence, supply and power from the Iranian territory through Iraq, Syria and the Mediterranean Sea: Tartus, Latakia (Syria) and Lebanon. The ambition is based on a constant partnership with local friendly proxies, Shi’a militias in southern Iraq (Popular Mobilization Units), the servile Assad Government in Syria and the dominating Hezbollah in the Levant and Mount Lebanon area. The development of this project is notably supervised by the elite al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) led by Qasem Soleimani. If successful in its endeavor Iran will rise to the status of regional hegemony in the Middle East and gain a foothold in the East Mediterranean, and consequently in the Euro-Atlantic security complex. The Assad Government and Hezbollah will benefit from a constant uninterrupted flow of supplies which will feed their military operations to threaten regional security, the state of Israel, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and will completely cancel Iraq’s sovereignty. The dominance of Shi’a militias in Iraq will fuel the Sunni alienation, deepening the sectarian tensions and degrading the societal landscape in which groups as ISIS will only prosper or re-surge.
If we annex the ‘Shia Crescent’ project with Iran’s control over the international trade routes (Hormuz strait and upcoming Bab-el-Mandeb after securing Yemen) and its bid to gain nuclear weapons, we have rational reasons to believe that Iran could even aspire to be major power on the international stage.
(ii) ISIS will try to put pressure on the location, as the al-Tanf fortification is not just a deterrent for cross-border supplies but also a staging area for further Rebel offensives farther north, up to the Euphrates valley and to Abu Kemal or al-Qaim – ISIS strongholds.
(iii) Euro-Atlantic stakeholders operating locally, the United States and the United Kingdom need to preserve the Rebel control of al-Tanf through military measures empowered by the welcoming Jordanian hosts, and through diplomatic de-escalation channels with opposing sides.
–Securing the border checkpoints provides comfort in regards to Iran’s land bridge ambition; therefore al-Tanf is a critical step in ensuring that the Syrian-Iraqi border does not become a fertilizer for Teheran backed-Shi’a militias operating the Fertile Crescent against U.S. and Euro-Atlantic interests.
-We can acknowledge al-Tanf as being a ‘forward operating base’ (FOB) for further operations to disrupt and assume control of ISIS’s cross-border operations that can penetrate even the Euphrates valley corridor – a strategic landmark – and cut avenues of escape and supply.
Situation Report: In-Field Developments
(1) Free Syrian Army rebel groups, namely Maghawir al-Thawra (also known as „New Syrian Army”) supported by United States, Jordanian and British operators and advisors have managed to cleans the Syrian-Jordani-Iraqi tri-border area from ISIS starting with March 2017.
(2) ISIS counter-attacks have been fed off with U.S., British and Jordanian infantry, mechanized and air support. The Coalition consolidated their posture in the desert and the border area, which alarmed the Loyalists and prompted a swift response from Tehran.
(3) Given the relative minimum de-escalation of the traditional and high-intensity battlefronts of Rastan, Quneitra, Dara’a and Rural Damascus (via Astana Accords) the Loyalists could afford dispatching a limited number of troops to challange the Rebel presence on the border area. Subsequently a convoy of mechanized, infantry and technical assets has been spotted heading towards al-Tanf. The event took place on March 18th, and prompted the US-led Coalition to reach-out to Russian counterparts through the joint communication center in Qatar and ask them to turn back the convoy or face force.
According to US Joint Chief of Staff in a press conferences held in that same day, the Russians were cooperative but failed to turn back the convoy.
This begs the question: Why? The convoy was composed of fighters from Kata’ib Imam Ali, Hezbollah and others from Shi’a militias, both from Iraq or Syria; consequently an Iranian proxy convoy over which the Russians have no persuasion or influence.
Inevitable the Coalition engaged the convoy and after several warning shots that caused no retreat, lethal rounds were authorized and casualties have been inflicted in the Loyalist side. The even took place in the Zarqa – al-Tanf juncture point, marking the second time when the US has engaged Loyalists elements in the war.
Mozahem al-Saloum, spokesman for the FSA’s Maghawir al-Thawra brigade at the base, told The Telegraph that the fighters are trained to only fight Isil but were forced to “defensively” engage with the pro-regime fighters.
(4) On May 26th the Loyalists have declared that they are launching ‘Operation of the Dawn’ to recapture the eastern Syrian desert. Up to today, other Free Syrian Army rebel groups have fend off the advancement and curbed the Loyalists up to the arid villages of Wadi as Sawt and Khabrat ash Shamiyah where violent clashes continue but at a distance of 100 km from al-Tanf.
(5) On 30th and 31th May, Iraqi Shi’a Popular Mobilization Units (PMU or Hashd al-Shaabi) have detached from their positions liberated from ISIS in Anbar and Nineveh, to al-Waleed, the Iraqi side of the al-Tanf border crossing. U.S. aircraft over the weekend dropped a series of leaflets around the Tanf border crossing between Syria and Iraq, warning these militias to avoid the area. Officials at the Pentagon have acknowledged that pro-regime forces are active in the area and were conducting armed patrols in the vicinity of Tanf.
The Iraqi PMU’s are allied with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Kurdish Pashmerga and US, French, British, Canadian, Belgian and Norwegian advisors or operators assisting and fighting in the battle for Mosul. While their circumstantial and operational cvasi-alliance is with Baghdad, Washington and Erbil, their allegiance and full loyalty is to Tehran.
(6) Around that same time, but in the geographically-opposite battlefront of northwestern Iraq, these PMUs backed exclusively by Iranian advisers have manage to bring the operation Baj of the Nineveh offensive to a palpable result: capturing the border area of Um Jaris –on Iraqi Nineveh side of the border with the Syrian Hasakha Governorate or – de facto – Kurdish Jazzira canton of the Federation of Northern Syria (Rojava).
“The PMU is ready to enter the Syrian territory to fight alongside the Syrian government in the war on ISIS terrorists,” PMU spokesman Karim al-Nouri said. We also have a picture of Qasem Soleimani, the general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s strategic mastermind, near the border area upon closing the operation.
We can confidently conclude for now that Iran’s ambition of land bridge is real and palpable. However there are several key pieces that are missing for the puzzle.
(7) While the northwestern supply line is secured from Baghdad via western Nineveh to the border crossing of Um Jaris, they do not have a palpable connector into Syria. The Hasakha governorate is under the control of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Kurdish YPG, that have recently announced that: “If (Iraqi) Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU) militias attempt to enter our areas, our forces will fight them” – Silo, Spokesperson of SDF.
This begs another question: the Kurdish allegiance. The situation differs from Syria to Iraq. In Syria, the Kurdish YPG is the largest component of the SDF, but it is firmly connected to the outlawed PKK. Only through US support have they managed to be relatively under shelter from a massive Turkish intervention in all of northern Syria, and were able to secure a de facto self-rule through a Federation of Northern Syria – placeholder for an actual ‘Rojava’.
However, in Iraq, the PKK has entertained an enigmatic relation with Tehran since the early 2000s. The disputed area is the Regional Government of Kurdistan (KRG) which is dominated by Barzani’s party (KDP) and military force (Pashmerga) who is allied with Baghdad and Turkey. The opposition forces are the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the PKK, sheltered in the Qandil Mountains – mostly on the Iraqi side, but periodically Tehran allowed the outlawed militants to fall back to the Iranian side of the mountains in order to evade Turkish air strikes.
These confrontations have remained largely at the political and social level, although palpable tensions have appeared after Pashmerga liberated the city of Sinjar and freed the Yazidis in November 2015. The local Yazidi’ paramilitary units are aligned with the PKK and have accommodated them in the city. The Pashmerga had a hostile reaction towards the gradual flow of PKK fighters into Sinjar, especially due to US pressure and Turkish danger. Erdogan recently teased that further Turkish operations could occur in Iraq as well, referring to Sinjar as “becoming a new Qandil”. Ankara has its fair share of influence in the area, apart from Barzani’s Pashmerga, they also have a military base in Bashiqa where they conduct recruitment and training for local Arab Sunni militias. Recently, the Pashmerga and the PKK were close to erupt in a massive fight in mount Sinjar that even prompted a further internally displacement of the Yazidi population.
Without a doubt, mount Sinjar is a key to a perpetual Iranian influence in northern Iraq, but as the regional stakeholders, namely Turkey, Iraq and the US have critical security interests in regards to the area, we expect a major multi-level effort to counter such self-asserting moves.
End Notes: Key Judgement
i. We observe a heavy Iranian-backed build-up on the Iraqi side of the Syrian crossings, notably in Um Jaris (northwestern Iraq, Nineveh region) and al-Waleed (southwestern Iraq, Anbar province). While this is a worrying trend and an aggressive application of the ‘Shia Crescent’ vision from Teheran, their prospects are limited at the moment, due to the lack of a land connection in the Syrian territory. The Loyalists inside Syria have not been able to reach the territory and the US-led Coalition has proven their readiness to counter any such attempts from the Iranian proxies.
ii. There is, however, an opportunity to develop a land bridge in Syria, but that option implies a major synchronized offensive through ISIS-held territory, launched from Palmyra (Syria) and Anbar Province (Iraq) to meet-up at the Loyalists enclave of Deir-Ezzor; or in other words, it would mean that Iran needs to beat the US to liberating the Euphrates Valley. Such an effort would take months, possibly even a year, and would necessitate an alarming number of fighters supported by a steady flow of logistics and air support that the Loyalists simply lack. Hypothetical speaking, the Loyalists would need to completely stop fighting the Rebels in order to detach the needed manpower and military assets from the heavily disputed Western Syria support strategic operations on the Euphrates valley, that has the highest concentration of ISIS fighters and possibly some kind of societal support. Or it would mean that external backers as Russia and Iran would need to detach more military assets from home, including tanks, fighter jets and soldiers.
Nonetheless, the proposed scenario is not completely unrealistic; the Loyalists have already launched an offensive (or an attempt) from Palmyra with the stated objective of liberating Deir-Ezzor. But as fights continue in the ‘de-escalation’ zones agreed at Astana, there is a low chance that even such an operation could be sustained or advanced.
iii. Another possibility would be that the SDF/YPG would in the end concede their Federation of Northern Syria to the Assad Regime; a prospect that is clearly a wild card. The relation between the two factions is ambivalent yet firm: the Kurds are not anti-Regime, but do want self-determination. The solution from Damascus is brokering a ‘middle-ground’/compromise agreement that involve recognizing an extended autonomy for the Kurds in exchange of them tolerating an Iranian safe-passage from Iraq. However, in such an equation there is also the Turkish and American input, making it a zero-sum game.
iv. Additionally, the dynamic and inner-relations in the Loyalist camp on the Syrian battlefield is ambiguous and uncertain. Russia does not hold the higher ground in that coalition and has been repeatedly defied by the Iranian generals that pursue their own raison d’etat. The Kremlin was not able to turn-back the convoy of Iranian proxies, as it was not able to keep its promises to Netanyahu and the state of Israel: when it unsuccessfully tried to pursue the Iranians to stop the detachment of Hezbollah fighters in Quneitra, near the Golan Heights, or when they agreed that weapons and equipment will not fall into the hands of Hezbollah. It became clear that Iran and Russia interact from a position of equals, and the later does not have any leverage over the other, hence the danger of a loose rogue state for international security.
v. The ‘Shia Crescent’ project has just been outlined on the map and while options are on the table, its prospects can easily be sabotaged or countered, it just requires the needed attention and strategic thinking from Washington’s defense planners. Apart from counter-measures, the safest vanguard against Iranian-influence in Syria is the rapid liberation of Raqqa, followed by an urgent advancement on the Euphrates Valley in order to project and establish control of the border with Iraq. The United States needs a concrete security posture in that area, both against ISIS and Iran.
vi. On the other hand, the political landscape in Iraq remains a Qubick game in which Iranian interests mostly prevail through a strategy of smart power, blending the soft elements of cultural diplomacy and political interference, with hard power leverage as the seasoned paramilitary proxies (PMU and PKK) that can only be countered by a robust and proportionate response from the US and the Gulf states – in the long term strategy, this Coalition lacks ‘cut-through’ and leverage. The long-term problem is not only that the post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi state was hijacked by Teheran and given to it by the ‘Obama retreat’, but that the means of grapping to such influence have and still stirs societal hostilities and sparkles sectarian divisions that only leads to more radical Sunni resurgence, of which aftershock will also be felt overseas in the Transatlantic realm. While the first years of the US in the War against ISIS was embroiled in political sensibilities and strategic paralysis by overthinking second-to-third action effects, Iran was rapidly surfing through the conflict to appease its interests and master the art of management over the infinitely complex battlefield.