Syria’s newest flashpoint is bringing U.S. and Iran face to face

The Wall Street Journal reports: Southern Syria, once the quietest corner of the country’s multisided conflict, has unexpectedly become the most volatile flashpoint between America and Iran as the two countries vie for control.

The U.S. military has moved mobile artillery-rocket launchers into southern Syria for the first time, as American troops in the area face increasing dangers from Iran-backed forces. Iran’s best-known military commander, meanwhile, was photographed praying with allied fighters in Syria, a visit seen by some U.S. officials as a public taunt by Tehran. Worried that the situation may spiral out of control, top U.S. military commanders are pressing Moscow to step in.

“This is rapidly developing, it’s not settled at all and I don’t even know that there’s a good direction determined yet,” one U.S. official said. “Everybody’s trying to figure out what to do here. It’s in nobody’s interest for us to get into an active fight with these pro-regime forces.”

For years, the U.S. military has focused its firepower in Syria on defeating Islamic State and largely avoided direct confrontations with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his Iranian allies. But the risks of a combustive confrontation in southern Syria have unexpectedly increased as the U.S. has ramped up its operations against Islamic State.

The jostling is partly driven by a view among some U.S. officials that the vast desert could become a staging ground for Mr. Trump’s nascent efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region, including Tehran’s efforts to establish firm control over weapons supply routes running through Iraq, Syria and into Lebanon.

Elite U.S. special operations forces have stepped up training and brought in more firepower to a small garrison known as al Tanf, near a key border crossing with Iraq. About 150 U.S. special operations forces are rotating in-and-out of the training base, U.S. officials said. In Syria’s north, more than 750 U.S. Marines and soldiers are using helicopters, artillery and airstrikes to help Syrian fighters push Islamic State from Raqqa, the extremist group’s largest remaining stronghold in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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