Column: U.S. and Iran against each other on the Syrian-Iraqi border

Merve Şebnem Oruç BY: Merve Şebnem Oruç*

According to news reported yesterday by CNN International based on Pentagon sources, in the latest development in this context, the U.S. decided to position a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) in the region. HIMARS, which was previously positioned in northern Syria to back People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces, is going to be used in the south for the first time. HIMARS systems were previously used on the Turkish and Jordanian borders and in Iraq to fight against Daesh. However, it needs to be stated that the positioning of the system in the south today has nothing to do with the fight against Daesh. Hence, one CNN source said the HIMARS system is going to be positioned as a reaction against the regime forces that are 55 kilometers from Tanf. Let that thought sit there for now.

The training provided to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in May 2015 within the scope of the train-and-equip program was launched in Jordan under U.S. leadership, with the name of the New Syrian Army. The 100-150 people who were previously part of the Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest) brigade were trained in Jordan and they then entered Syria and captured the Jordanian border from Daesh. Then, the training camp in Jordan was moved to Syria, to the base established in Tanf. Today, hundreds of people are being trained there within the scope of the New Syrian Army, now known as the Revolutionary Commando Army (Maghawir al-Thawra). In addition to the 150 American soldiers, there are soldiers at the Tanf training camp from other anti-Daesh coalition countries, primarily from the U.K. and Jordan.

Tanf, which is in an important position in the Jordan-Syria-Iraq triangle, has a critical position in Syria’s southeast as it is on the Iraq-Syria border and joins the Baghdad-Damascus line. As the Raqqa operation launched quietly, it is now gradually being asked what is next after Raqqa and Mosul. The regime forces and Iran-backed militias in Syria heading towards the Syria-Iraq border from the direction of Damascus, while the Iran-backed Hashd al-Shabi militias have reached the Syria border from the direction of Iraq, shows that this is going to be the new hotspot. The photographs of Iranian Quds Forces leader Qassem Soleimani taken with Iraqi and Afghan militias in the south of the Iraqi-Syrian border since June, are being interpreted as that the forces supported by Iran in Syria and Iraq have reached each other. The attacks by the U.S.-led coalition on the regime forces near Tanf and the 300-kilometer range HIMARS system it has decided to position, despite CENTCOM continuing to stress that “everybody needs to focus on the fight against Daesh,” increases the likelihood of there soon being close combat in the south between elements supported by Iran and the U.S.

There is benefit in reading the recent warnings by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who the U.S. started supporting after giving up on Maliki, aimed at the Iraqi militias, almost considering the Hashd al-Shabi equal to Daesh, in relation to these developments. While the Iraqi militias are openly challenging these statements by Abadi, made in parallel to the U.S.’s activity in the region, responding by saying, “The Hashd al-Shabi will have a presence in Iraq and in Syria.”

It is a fact known by all that the supposed fight against Daesh in Iraq has turned into room made for the Hashd al-Shabi and a war against the Sunnis. At the end of the Mosul operation, who will take Mosul, a Sunni city, what kind of administration will be established here? What kind of developments will the decision by Masoud Barzani’s administration to hold a referendum on independence lead to in the north of Iraq and what will the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which we know to frequently take joint action with the Hashd al-Shabi, do? These are questions pertaining to Iraq.

While in Syria, the U.S.’s so-called fight against Daesh is legitimizing the Syrian PKK in the north, Iran, left stray, Hezbollah and the regime, with the support they receive from Russia, have been fighting against the anti-regime Sunnis ever since the start. As Soleimani poses for photographs in the south of the Iraq-Syria border, lately, Syrian tribes have been claiming that the Hashd al-Shabi is cooperating with the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and has entered Syria from the north and captured some villages. In other words, while a PKK corridor is being established in the north of Iranian Iraq and Syria, it is demanding a response to the support it is providing while a Shiite corridor is being established in the south. While the Pentagon seems to have no intention to allow this, how is it going to stop the PKK/PYD? Furthermore, even if the PYD/YPG is used in the Raqqa operation, how much will the U.S. administration, which promised Turkey the establishment of a predominantly Sunni and Arab administration in Raqqa after the operation, keep its word? Also, will the U.S.-backed forces in the Deir ez-Zor, Abu Kamal and Tanf triangle, which is understood to be the scene of close combats post-Raqqa, prevail, or will the regime, Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias supported by Iran? What position will Russia take? These are questions pertaining to Syria.

The U.S., which has left no living room for Sunni’s in Syria and Iraq with its implied agreements with the PKK and Iran under the fight against Daesh, may continue the war from now on with Iranian militias. The U.S. president’s support for the Gulf-Qatar crisis and the crisis bearing emphasis on Iran, pleasing the U.S., moves that Israel wants to see increase in the region, somewhat reveal the color of the new conflict. The Pentagon, which currently does not like Iran at all, seems to have launched the preparations it started to make against Iran in the south of Syria with the green light from U.S. President Donald Trump. Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif, who made a surprise visit to Ankara last week, is obviously not visiting only in the context of the Qatar crisis, but also searching for an ally against the anti-Iran alliance that has emerged in Syria and Iraq. So, what position will Turkey take? In brief, there are many questions, but what is clear is that those who expect the conflicts in the region to end will be mistaken – a new stage is starting.

*Merve Şebnem Oruç is a Turkish journalist and columnist. She writes for Yeni Şafak Turkish newspaper.

(Published in Yeni Şafak on June 15, 2017)