Cooperation with Russia becomes central to Trump strategy in Syria

The Washington Post reports: Cooperation with Russia is becoming a central part of the Trump administration’s counter-Islamic State strategy in Syria, with U.S. military planners counting on Moscow to try to prevent Syrian government forces and their allies on the ground from interfering in coalition-backed operations against the militants.

Syria’s once-separate conflicts have moved into close proximity on the battlefield. Part of the plan essentially carves up Syria into no-go zones for each of the players — President Bashar al-Assad’s fight, with Russian and Iranian help, against rebels seeking to overthrow him, and the U.S.-led coalition’s war to destroy the Islamic State.

Some lawmakers and White House officials have expressed concern that the strategy is shortsighted, gives the long-term advantage in Syria to Russia, Iran and Assad, and ultimately leaves the door open for a vanquished Islamic State to reestablish itself.

Critics also say that neither Russia nor Iran can be trusted to adhere to any deal, and that the result will be a continuation of the civil war whose negotiated end the administration has also set as a goal. [Continue reading…]

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Trump assigns White House team to target Iran nuclear deal, sidelining State Department

Foreign Policy reports: After a contentious meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week, President Donald Trump instructed a group of trusted White House staffers to make the potential case for withholding certification of Iran at the next 90-day review of the nuclear deal. The goal was to give Trump what he felt the State Department had failed to do: the option to declare that Tehran was not in compliance with the contentious agreement.

“The president assigned White House staffers with the task of preparing for the possibility of decertification for the 90-day review period that ends in October — a task he had previously given to Secretary Tillerson and the State Department,” a source close to the White House told Foreign Policy.

The agreement, negotiated between Iran and world powers, placed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting an array of economic sanctions.

On Tuesday, Trump relayed this new assignment to a group of White House staffers now tasked with making sure there will not be a repeat at the next 90-day review. “This is the president telling the White House that he wants to be in a place to decertify 90 days from now and it’s their job to put him there,” the source said. [Continue reading…]

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Is the nuclear deal with Iran slipping away?

Robin Wright writes: On Monday, the White House hastily organized a press teleconference on the Iranian nuclear deal. The accord—brokered by the world’s six major powers two years ago—is to President Trump’s foreign policy what Obamacare is to his domestic policy: he is determined to destroy it, without a coherent or viable strategy, so far, to replace it. It’s also not clear that Trump fully understands its details, complex diplomatic process, or long-term stakes any more than he does health care.

During the White House briefing, I asked the three senior Administration officials whether, after months of inflammatory declarations about the “bad deal” and the “bad” government in Tehran, the Trump Administration is moving toward a policy of regime change. It often sounds like it. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress in June that U.S. policy includes “support of those elements inside Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” Last month, the Defense Secretary, James Mattis, described Iran as “a country that is acting more like a revolutionary cause, not to the best interests of their own people,” and added, “until the Iranian people can get rid of this theocracy.” Shortly after Trump’s Inauguration, a memo circulated by hawks within the Administration suggested that Iran was susceptible to “coerced democratization,” a euphemism for regime change. Authored by Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the memo argued that “the very structure of the regime invites instability, crisis and possibly collapse,” and urged the White House to work against the reëlection this year of President Hassan Rouhani, the chief sponsor of the nuclear deal on the Iranian side. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s war against ISIS in Syria: Why Putin, Assad, and Iran are winning

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: In his inaugural address, U.S. President Donald Trump promised to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

To be fair, he’s had only about six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than he hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, has concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. There, a new great game for post-ISIS control is taking place with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key players. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the U.S.), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa—its Syrian stronghold—is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisers, are leading the fight. Civilians are paying the price. United Nations investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by U.S.-led airstrikes on the city.

Though it’s a multiethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organization is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety) and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadi anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

Eighty percent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

But those who are allies one year may be enemies the next. Emboldened by a series of Russian-granted victories in the west of the country, Iran and Assad are racing east, seeking to dominate the post-ISIS order on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran has almost achieved its aim of projecting its influence regionally and globally through a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In this new context, Assad and his backers are turning on the SDF. On June 18, pro-Assad forces attacked the SDF near Tabqa, west of Raqqa. When a regime warplane joined the attack, American forces shot it down. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. certifies that Iran is meeting terms of nuclear deal

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration certified to Congress late Monday that Iran has continued to meet the required conditions of its nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers.

But senior administration officials made clear that the certification was grudging, and said that President Trump intends to impose new sanctions on Iran for ongoing “malign activities” in non-nuclear areas such as ballistic missile development and support for terrorism.

“We judge that these Iranian activities severely undermine the intent” of the agreement as a force for international stability, one official said. Iran is “unquestionably in default of the spirit of the JCPOA,” or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that took effect in January 2016 after years of negotiations, the official said. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s gift to Putin in the Mideast

Vali Nasr writes: Over the past two months, even as American-trained forces were driving Islamic State insurgents out of the major Iraqi city of Mosul, the war next door in Syria was taking a dangerous but little-remarked turn — one far more favorable for Russia’s ambitions to regain a position of broad influence in the Middle East.

First, a major gaffe by President Trump helped Saudi Arabia split a Sunni Muslim alliance that was supposed to fight against the Islamic State — so much so that Qatar and Turkey moved closer together and became open to cooperation with Iran and Russia. Later, when Mr. Trump sat down with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Germany, the American president virtually handed the keys to the region to his adversary by agreeing to a cease-fire in Syria that assumed a lasting presence of Russian influence in that conflict — which only consolidated the likelihood of wider regional influence.

With Mr. Trump’s inner circle often at odds with one another and the president going his own unpredictable way, Mr. Putin seems never to miss an opportunity to expand Russia’s presence in the region. That has helped to blur even the longstanding lines of sectarian division between Sunni and Shiite states and to complicate America’s strategic position.

To be sure, Mr. Trump sent his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to the region to sort out the mess. But among the monarchs of the Middle East, an underling’s voice stood no chance of undoing the damage already done by his master’s tweets. [Continue reading…]

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Iran dominates in Iraq after U.S. ‘handed the country over’

The New York Times reports: Walk into almost any market in Iraq and the shelves are filled with goods from Iran — milk, yogurt, chicken. Turn on the television and channel after channel broadcasts programs sympathetic to Iran.

A new building goes up? It is likely that the cement and bricks came from Iran. And when bored young Iraqi men take pills to get high, the illicit drugs are likely to have been smuggled across the porous Iranian border.

And that’s not even the half of it.

Across the country, Iranian-sponsored militias are hard at work establishing a corridor to move men and guns to proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon. And in the halls of power in Baghdad, even the most senior Iraqi cabinet officials have been blessed, or bounced out, by Iran’s leadership.

When the United States invaded Iraq 14 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein, it saw Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East, and vast amounts of blood and treasure — about 4,500 American lives lost, more than $1 trillion spent — were poured into the cause.

From Day 1, Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq, a former enemy against which it fought a war in the 1980s so brutal, with chemical weapons and trench warfare, that historians look to World War I for analogies. If it succeeded, Iraq would never again pose a threat, and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region.

In that contest, Iran won, and the United States lost. [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration plans to certify Iranian compliance with nuclear agreement

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration, delaying an anticipated confrontation with Iran until the completion of a long-awaited policy review, plans to recertify Tehran’s compliance with the Obama-era nuclear deal, according to U.S. and foreign officials.

The recertification, due Monday to Congress, follows a heated internal debate between those who want to crack down on Iran now — including some White House officials and lawmakers — and Cabinet officials who are “managing other constituencies” such as European allies, and Russia and China, which signed and support the agreement, one senior U.S. official said.

As a candidate and president, Trump has said he would reexamine and possibly kill what he called the “disastrous” nuclear deal that was negotiated under President Barack Obama and went into effect in January last year. The historic agreement shut down most of Iran’s nuclear program, in some cases for decades, in exchange for an easing of international sanctions.

Under an arrangement Obama worked out with Congress, the administration must certify Iranian compliance with the terms of the accord every 90 days. If the administration denies certification, it can then decide to reinstitute sanctions that were suspended under the deal.

The Trump administration issued its first certification in April, when it also said it was awaiting completion of its review of the agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The senior official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations, said the review should be completed before the next certification deadline in October.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations and other signatories have said repeatedly that Iran is complying with the agreement, under which the country dismantled most of its centrifuges and nuclear stockpile, shut down a plutonium production program and agreed to extensive international monitoring of all stages of the nuclear process. [Continue reading…]

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How the Russians suckered Trump in Syria, and Iran comes out the big winner

Chareles Lister writes: The core principles underpinning the Trump administration’s new Syria policy are roughly as follows: The United States is only in Syria to fight the so-called Islamic State (widely known as ISIS) and is not in a position to directly challenge the legitimacy of the Bashar al-Assad regime, despite its many crimes. Meanwhile, it is to be conceded that Russia has invested heavily in Syria and its proposed establishment of “de-escalation zones” is the best path forward to securing stability.

With U.S. troops actively supporting our Syrian partners in a major assault on ISIS-held Raqqa, the second portion of U.S. Syria policy is being newly revealed by our expressed diplomatic support for Russian-mediated ceasefires and our direct role in negotiating one in Syria’s southwest.

While de-escalation by itself is a highly desirable state of affairs for humanitarian reasons, the U.S. is lending diplomatic cover to what is, in all respects, Russia’s foremost strategic mechanism for methodically guaranteeing an Assad victory by selectively freezing front lines in order to free up pro-regime forces to fight elsewhere.

By lending American support to such schemes, the Trump administration is failing to learn from recent history in Syria, where such agreements brought short-term stability to the benefit of one party over the other.

At the core of the agreement, which was sealed during a meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Hamburg last week, the U.S. and Jordan are responsible for coercing opposition groups to stop fighting, while Moscow will ensure the Assad regime, Iran, and Iranian-backed militias do the same.

This is not a new strategy—it is a consolidation of a policy developed by President Barack Obama, whose administration frequently called for Assad’s departure, but never seriously sought to realize it. By acknowledging the limits of our objectives in Syria, the U.S. is effectively admitting its defeat to Russia and Iran. Gone are the days of “leading from behind”; today we are following from the back. [Continue reading…]

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The Kremlin’s contradictory behavior in Syria

Anton Mardasov writes: The Kremlin is seeking to flesh out the idea of creating four de-escalation (“safe”) zones in western war-torn Syria while trying to help President Bashar al-Assad regain control of lost territories in the east. When it comes to the west, Moscow is talking about the de facto end of the civil war and aims to covertly weaken the Syrian opposition. As for eastern Syria, Russia is trying hard, though discreetly, to distance itself from the US-Iranian confrontation and preserve communication channels with Washington. It is also advocating decreasing the influence of both the United States and Kurds and urging pro-Kremlin oligarchs to help fix the economy.

Russia’s policy in Syria seems successful, and that appearance is meant to impress the Russian population ahead of the 2018 presidential election. In reality, however, Moscow is confronted with a range of problems as it proceeds with its purely tactical plans. Syrian government troops continue fighting in Daraa province, and the Southern Front — the rebel alliance that until recently had hardly opposed the regime — boycotted the fifth round of negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan, which resumed July 4.

Some Russian analysts, referencing their sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense, argue that Russian military and political leaders are well aware that Iran and Assad intend to prevent the UN’s peace plan from succeeding. (The UN Security Council unanimously adopted the plan, Resolution 2254, in late 2015.) The analysts worry that Tehran and Damascus might try to convince Moscow to not cooperate as well. [Continue reading…]

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Israel’s forthcoming security dilemma

Nadav Pollak writes: In recent weeks Israel and Hizballah continued a time-honored tradition that tends to flare up in the hot months of summer: exchanging harsh words and threats regarding what each side will do to the other in the next war. These are not empty threats. Each side has the ability to inflict tremendous damage on the other. But even though both sides are ready for a war, neither Israel nor Hizballah wants one now. The main purpose of their heated rhetoric is the maintenance of deterrence and alertness. However, a recent development might raise the temperature even more.

In a speech at the Herzliya Conference on June 22, Israel’s head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, basically confirmed prior reports in Arab media that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is working to establish an independent weapons industry in Lebanon focused on advanced missiles. This worrying development reportedly had become the focus of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli cabinet in recent weeks, with some wondering if there will be a point at which Israel will need to execute a preemptive strike in Lebanon that might spark a war.

In recent years Israel attacked numerous arms shipments on their way to Hizballah. These advanced arms shipments reportedly included anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. Some of these missiles are accurate and can hit strategic sites in Israel, such as military bases and important civilian infrastructure. The Israeli prime minister and minister of defense time and time again said such capabilities in the hands of Hizballah would be a red line and insisted that Israel will act to prevent the flow of advanced weapons to the militant group. According to some estimates, Israel was able to destroy 60 percent of these advanced arms shipments. This might be cause for celebration, but it seems that these airstrikes changed something in Iran’s thinking.

Israeli media reported this week that the IRGC is pushing for a Hizballah-controlled advanced weapons industrial base because this would make Israel’s interdiction operations obsolete. Tehran likely hopes that Israel will avoid attacking Hizballah in Lebanon, fearing that such a direct attack might lead to war. As such, the closer the production line is to the customer, the better.

Iran’s calculus has some merit. It appears that Israel and Hizballah have an unspoken understanding: As long as Israel does not attack Hizballah on Lebanese soil and its attacks do not result in Hizballah casualties, the organization usually chooses not to retaliate. [Continue reading…]

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How Iran recruited Afghan refugees to fight Assad’s war

Ali M. Latifi writes: War and poverty have scattered Afghans across the globe like pieces of shrapnel. Millions of Afghans came of age in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran or as workers in the Persian Gulf nations. The migration continues. The past few years have added a new lethal geography to the Afghan diaspora: the battlefields of President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.

Two years ago, Abdol Amin, 19, left his home in the Foladi Valley in Bamian, one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces, to find work in Iran. Two million undocumented Afghans and a million Afghans with refugee status already lived in Iran. His sister and brother-in-law lived in Isfahan. He hoped to improve on his life of subsistence farming in impoverished Bamian.

Two-thirds of the population in Bamian Province lives on less than $25 a month. The intense poverty and the absence of opportunity forces thousands of young Afghans from Bamian to travel illegally to Iran in search of work. Many, like Mr. Amin, end up fighting other people’s wars.

Mr. Amin managed to earn a meager wage, about $200 a month, as a bricklayer in Isfahan. Last year, he used his modest savings and went to Iraq with a group of fellow Afghan refugees for a pilgrimage to Karbala, the city where Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed in A.D. 680.

Elated after his pilgrimage, Mr. Amin returned to Iran but couldn’t find any work for three months. As often happens with Afghan refugees in Iran, Mr. Amin was humiliated and discriminated against. He lived with the constant fear of being deported. “Iran isn’t our country. It belongs to strangers,” Mr. Amin said. “Either you suffer and try to make some money or you die.”

Last winter Iranian authorities presented Mr. Amin with a proposition. He could gain legal status in Iran and be free of the fear of deportation. The Iranians offered him a 10-year residency permit and $800 a month if he would go to Syria to “fight to protect” the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.

Around 2013, when Mr. Assad’s military was losing ground to the rebels, Iran poured billions of dollars into Syria, brought in Hezbollah fighters and began raising Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places with significant Shiite populations. Iran does want to protect the major Shiite shrines in Damascus, Aleppo and Raqqa, but the use of foreign Shiite militias in the Syria war was simply another element in the larger battle for control and influence in the Middle East run by Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force. [Continue reading…]

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Tillerson and Mattis struggle to clean up Trump and Kushner’s Middle East mess

Mark Perry writes: On March 25, 2011, a Qatar Air Force Mirage 2000-5, took off from Souda Air Base, in Crete, to help enforce a no-fly zone protecting rebels being attacked by Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. Qatar was the first Persian Gulf nation to help the U.S. in the conflict.

Qatari operations were more than symbolic. The Qatari military trained rebel units, shipped them weapons, accompanied their fighting units into battle, served as a link between rebel commanders and NATO, tutored their military commanders, integrated disparate rebel units into a unified force and led them in the final assault on Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.“We never had to hold their hand,” a retired senior U.S. military officer says. “They knew what they were doing.” Put simply, while the U.S. was leading from behind in Libya, the Qataris were walking point.

The Qatar intervention has not been forgotten at the Pentagon and is one of the reasons why Defense Secretary James Mattis has worked so diligently to patch up the falling out between them and the coalition of Saudi-led countries (including the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt), that have isolated and blockaded the nation. In fact, Mattis was stunned by the Saudi move. “His first reaction was shock, but his second was disbelief,” a senior military officer says. “He thought the Saudis had picked an unnecessary fight, and just when the administration thought they’d gotten everyone in the Gulf on the same page in forming a common front against Iran.”

At the time of the Saudi announcement, Mattis was in Sydney with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to dampen concerns about the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accords. The two glad-handed Australian officials and issued a reassuring pronouncement on U.S. intentions during a June 5 press briefing with that nation’s foreign and defense ministers. When the burgeoning split between the Saudis and Qataris was mentioned, Tillerson described it as no more than one of “a growing list or irritants in the region” that would not impair “the unified fight against terrorism …”

But while Tillerson’s answer was meant to soothe concerns over the crisis, behind the scenes he and Mattis were scrambling to undo the damage caused by Saudi action. The two huddled in Sydney and decided that Tillerson would take the lead in trying to resolve the falling out. Which is why, three days after the Sydney press conference, Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to ease their anti-Qatar blockade and announced that the U.S. supported a Kuwaiti-led mediation effort. The problem for Tillerson was that his statement was contradicted by Donald Trump who, during a Rose Garden appearance on the same day, castigated Qatar, saying the emirate “has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

A close associate of the secretary of state says that Tillerson was not only “blind-sided by the Trump statement,” but “absolutely enraged that the White House and State Department weren’t on the same page.” Tillerson’s aides, I was told, were convinced that the true author of Trump’s statement was U.A.E. ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, a close friend of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. “Rex put two-and-two together,” his close associate says, “and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters. Otaiba weighed in with Jared and Jared weighed in with Trump. What a mess.” The Trump statement was nearly the last straw for Tillerson, this close associate explains: “Rex is just exhausted. He can’t get any of his appointments approved and is running around the world cleaning up after a president whose primary foreign policy adviser is a 31-year-old amateur.”

Worse yet, at least from Tillerson’s point of view, a White House official explained the difference between the two statements by telling the press to ignore the secretary of state. “Tillerson may initially have had a view,” a White House official told the Washington Post, “then the president has his view, and obviously the president’s view prevails.”

Or maybe not. While Trump’s June 9 statement signaled that the U.S. was tilting towards the Saudis and the UAE, Tillerson and Mattis have been tilting towards Qatar. And for good reason. [Continue reading…]

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Trump allies push White House to consider regime change in Tehran

Politico reports: As the White House formulates its official policy on Iran, senior officials and key Trump allies are calling for the new administration to take steps to topple Tehran’s militant clerical government.

Supporters of dislodging Iran’s iron-fisted clerical leadership say it’s the only way to halt Tehran’s dangerous behavior, from its pursuit of nuclear weapons to its sponsorship of terrorism. Critics say that political meddling in Iran, where memories of a 1953 CIA-backed coup remain vivid, risks a popular backlash that would only empower hardliners.

That’s why President Barack Obama assured Iranians, in a 2013 speech at the United Nations, that “we are not seeking regime change.”

But influential Iran hawks want to change that under Trump.

“The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who speaks regularly with White House officials about foreign policy. “I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism,” he added. [Continue reading…]

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The growing U.S.-Iran proxy fight in Syria

Mohamad Bazzi writes: On Sunday evening, a U.S. warplane shot down a Syrian jet after it bombed American-backed rebels in northern Syria. This marked the first time the United States has downed a Syrian warplane since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011. On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that the United States had shot down an Iranian-made drone in the country’s southeast, where American personnel have been training anti-Islamic State fighters.

Since President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. military has struck the Syrian regime or its allies at least five times, in most cases to protect U.S.-backed rebels and their American advisers. Even if the Pentagon may not want to directly engage Syrian forces or their Russian and Iranian-backed allies, there’s a danger of accidental escalation, especially as various forces continue to converge on eastern and southern Syria to reclaim strategic territory from ISIS. Russia, for its part, angrily condemned the U.S. action and threatened on Monday to treat all coalition planes in Syria as potential targets.

But the dangers are perhaps particularly acute when it comes to Iran, which made dramatic battlefield moves of its own on Sunday, when it launched several missiles from inside Iran against ISIS targets in eastern Syria. Officially, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said the volley of missiles fired at Deir Ezzor province was a response to a pair of attacks by ISIS in Tehran on June 7, which killed 18 people and wounded dozens; the attacks marked the first time that ISIS had struck inside Iran. But the Iranian regime had several less-dramatic means to exact revenge against ISIS targets in Syria—after all, there’s no shortage of Iranian allies operating in the war-ravaged country.

Instead, Iran’s fiery act of vengeance seemed to be a message aimed at both the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia. (The six ballistic missiles used by Tehran against ISIS, with a range of 700 kilometers, could reach major Saudi cities.) The kingdom has become emboldened regionally and escalated its anti-Iran rhetoric thanks, in part, to Trump’s message of seemingly unconditional support. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: An American F-15E fighter jet shot down an Iranian-made armed drone over southeast Syria on Tuesday that was flying toward American-backed Syrian fighters and their advisers, Pentagon officials said.

The episode was a fresh indication that the air war between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the American military is likely to continue, and perhaps even escalate, even as the United States has sought to keep its focus on defeating the Islamic State militants operating in Syria and Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Syria troops position themselves at heart of war on ISIS

The Associated Press reports: Syrian government troops and their allies have steadily positioned themselves in key areas on the flanks of the U.S.-led coalition battle for the Islamic State’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.

They are attempting to become an indispensable player in uprooting the extremists from Syria entirely.

That presents a major challenge for the coalition, which so far has shunned any cooperation with President Bashar Assad and has partnered instead with local Kurdish-led forces.

As the U.S. has intensified its fight against IS in Syria, Assad and his trusted allies of Russia and Iran are increasingly asserting themselves. A Syrian military offensive has unfolded on several fronts, coupled with Russian airstrikes and a show of force by Iran, which fired ballistic missiles on an IS stronghold this week and pushed militias that it sponsors deeper into the battlefield.

Damascus and its allies have long argued that they are the essential partner to any international effort in Syria, portraying all opposition forces as terrorist groups.

A close look at the map shows that pro-Assad troops have placed themselves in key locations in the anti-IS battle, while staying close to the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces who lead the ground offensive. The Syrian government forces and their allies have placed themselves south of Raqqa and on the outskirts of Deir el-Zour, the IS militants’ last refuge.

While government troops may be far from in control of that area and are unlikely to go after the city of Raqqa, Syria expert Sam Heller of the Century Foundation said the forces “have done enough to insert themselves that they’re now a fact on the ground.” [Continue reading…]

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White House officials want to expand war in Syria by pushing U.S. troops to confront Iranian-backed forces

Foreign Policy reports: A pair of top White House officials is pushing to broaden the war in Syria, viewing it as an opportunity to confront Iran and its proxy forces on the ground there, according to two sources familiar with the debate inside the Donald Trump administration.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top Middle East advisor, want the United States to start going on the offensive in southern Syria, where, in recent weeks, the U.S. military has taken a handful of defensive actions against Iranian-backed forces fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Their plans are making even traditional Iran hawks nervous, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has personally shot down their proposals more than once, the two sources said.

The situation in southern Syria has escalated in recent weeks, after a U.S. warplane shot down an Iranian-made drone that had attacked U.S. forces on patrol with Syrian allies near an American outpost at al-Tanf. The drone attack came after two U.S. airstrikes on Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which had moved too close to the Americans’ garrison.

Despite the more aggressive stance pushed by some White House officials, Mattis, military commanders, and top U.S. diplomats all oppose opening up a broader front against Iran and its proxies in southeastern Syria, viewing it as a risky move that could draw the United States into a dangerous confrontation with Iran, defense officials said. Such a clash could trigger retaliation against U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Syria, where Tehran has armed thousands of Shiite militia fighters and deployed hundreds of Revolutionary Guard officers.

Mattis, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Brett McGurk, the U.S. diplomat overseeing the anti-Islamic State coalition, all favor keeping the focus on pushing the Islamic State out of its remaining strongholds, including the southern Syrian city of Raqqa, officials said. “That’s the strategy they’ve signed off on and that’s where the effort is,” said one defense official.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

The Pentagon has publicly asserted it has no intention to fight forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, unless provoked.

“The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime or pro-regime forces but remains ready to defend themselves if pro-regime forces refuse to vacate the de-confliction zone,” U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said in a June 6 statement.

It’s not the first time Mattis and Dunford have found themselves having to push back against White House proposals for aggressive action they consider ill-conceived and even reckless. Earlier, the two opposed a tentative idea that would have sent a large U.S. ground force into Syria to oust the Islamic State instead of relying on local Syrian Kurd and Arab fighters backed by U.S. commandos. [Continue reading…]

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