The U.S.-led coalition bombed a Syrian army convoy approaching its base near the Iraqi border in the far eastern part of the country, the Pentagon announced Tuesday. The statement said the approaching force had a tank, anti-aircraft, artillery, and at least 60 pro-regime soldiers, which were reportedly mostly made up of Iranian forces.
They were approaching the Tanf Garrison, a sparsely inhabited base of operations for the American-led coalition seeking to support anti-ISIS operations. ISIS took control of most of the Syrian border in 2014, even bulldozing the border sand barriers between Iraq and Syria. The coalition said it warned the approaching convoy multiple times before bombing it and destroying several of its artillery pieces.
This is the second time in two months the coalition has destroyed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad near the Iraqi border. On May 17, U.S forces also hit Syrian troops approaching the same location for similar reasons, citing that the convoy posed a danger to U.S. troops training forces in the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS.
This comes in the backdrop of a U.S.-supported push on Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State. The Pentagon also announced that Kurdish and Arab fighters have begun an assault on the city’s eastern suburbs, supported by nearby indirect fire from U.S. Marines and coalition airpower.
Assad’s forces are in the middle of a campaign to try to retake their eastern border with Iraq after reconquering Aleppo, formerly the country’s commercial center, last fall with Russian help. Doing so will rebuild Assad’s legitimacy as the sole ruler of Syria, especially as anti-ISIS forces get ready to take the self-declared caliphate’s last two major cities, Raqqa and Mosul.
However, Assad’s forces are badly depleted. Some, including Der Spiegel, put his forces at less than 6,000, down from a pre-war high of 250,000 active and reserve troops. Defections and casualties have forced Assad to rely on thousands of Russian troops and thousands more Shi’a and Iranian militias.
It’s these allied forces that appear to be pushing for Assad to retake Tanf, especially the Iranians. According to the Christian Science Monitor, “Another clash is brewing that is pitting the strategic objectives of the United States against those of Iran, and that could soon bring US troops and Iranian-backed forces into direct military confrontation.” The Iranians hope to reopen a supply corridor between Baghdad and Damascus, according to the Monitor. This is the infamous “Shi’a crescent” which stretches from Tehran in the east to Beirut in the west.
This is partially to keep supply routes open to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that Iran supplies, and partially to extend Iran’s influence across the north of America’s key allies, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, allowing it to exert pressure on these two states. If the United States can keep the border from falling back into Assad’s hands, it will break this clean corridor. If the civil war begins to wind down in 2017, a cease-fire may resemble Lebanon’s 1989 Taif Accords, which effectively split the country into spheres of influence. The United States might then exert influence on the eastern half of the country, adding to its influence in Iraq, where it has supported the Baghdad government in its war against ISIS.
The bombing comes as the Trump administration seeks to ratchet up pressure on Tehran, whom it views as being the largest progenitor of terror in the greater Middle East.
It’s unknown if the bombing forces were solely Iranian, Shi’a militia, or regular Syrian army forces, as they were described only as “pro-regime” forces. No Russian troops were among them, at least as far as the statement said.
[Featured Image by Greg English/AP Photo]