Postscript to the proxy war

Tensions threaten to spiral between the U.S. and Iran ahead of the coming battle for southern Syria

Published - July 07, 2017 12:05 am IST

On June 18, a U.S. warplane shot down a Syrian regime jet after it bombed American-backed rebels in northern Syria — the first time the U.S. has downed a Syrian warplane since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011. Two days later, the P entagon announced it had shot down an Iranian-made drone in the country’s south-east, where American personnel have been training anti-Islamic State fighters, and where a complex geopolitical battle is unfolding.

Since President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. military has struck the Syrian regime or its allies at least five times. 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 the Islamic State (IS).

Mr. Trump’s willingness to use military force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his chief supporters risks sparking a widening confrontation, while distracting from what Mr. Trump insists is his top priority : defeating the IS in both Iraq and Syria. As a presidential candidate, Mr. Trump campaigned on a pledge to avoid direct U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. Today, he has become a major player in a regional proxy war that could determine West Asia’s dynamics for decades.

The Syrian conflict has expanded into a war that involves regional and world powers — including the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar — whose interests sometimes overlap, but at other times lead to multiple confrontations and uncomfortable alliances. Under the Obama administration, U.S. policy in Syria was focused on containing the IS, largely ignoring Mr. Assad, and keeping American allies from fighting each other.

The Iran factor

The dangers are particularly acute when it comes to Iran, which made dramatic battlefield moves of its own last month when it launched several missiles from inside Iran against IS targets in eastern Syria. Officially, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said the volley of missiles fired at Deir al-Zour province was a response to a pair of attacks by IS militants in Tehran on June 7, the first time that the terrorist group had struck inside Iran.


After shooting down the Syrian jet, the Pentagon insisted it would protect the Syrian rebels it has been training and arming for more than a year to launch the assault on the IS in Raqqa, capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate. “The coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend coalition or partner forces from any threat,” the U.S. statement said. And foremost among those threats, in the eyes of the Trump administration, is Iran. While Mr. Trump has changed his mind on a number of foreign policy questions since taking office, he has been consistent in his belief that Iran poses the greatest threat to U.S. interests in West Asia.

Nowhere is Iran projecting its regional power more extensively than Syria. Since the war started, Tehran has sent billions of dollars in aid and thousands of troops and Shiite volunteers to support Mr. Assad’s men. Over the past two years, Russia and Iran, along with Hezbollah and several Iraqi Shiite militias, helped the Syrian President consolidate control and regain territory he lost to Syrian rebels and foreign jihadists. In December, with intensive Russian airstrikes and Iranian ground support, his forces recaptured the rebel-held sections of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. It was Mr. Assad’s biggest victory since the war began. The next prize for the Syria government and its allies is the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, home to the country’s modest oilfields. This desert expanse includes several border crossings between Syria, Iraq and Jordan — and the strategic highway connecting Damascus and Baghdad.


In recent weeks, Syrian troops, along with Hezbollah and other Shiite militias, have been moving to consolidate control over the area and to connect with Iranian-backed militias that are fighting to dislodge the IS from the Iraqi side of the border.

The Trump administration is worried that with these gains, Iran and its allies will carve out a “Shiite crescent” extending from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, and into Lebanon, where Hezbollah is the most powerful political and military force. Such a prospect looms large not only for the U.S. administration, but also its allies in the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia.

Since taking office, Mr. Trump and his top advisers have shifted their rhetoric to reflect more explicit support for Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies, and, in turn, a harsher view of Iran. The shift was cemented during Mr. Trump’s visit in May to the kingdom, which he chose as the first stop on his maiden overseas trip as President. Like his Saudi hosts, Mr. Trump framed the problems of West Asia as due solely to Iran’s belligerence and terrorism by Islamist extremist groups, despite the kingdom’s destabilising activities across the region, including its ongoing catastrophic war in Yemen and its recent blockade of Qatar.


Meanwhile, Iranian officials are growing increasingly frustrated at the Trump administration’s constant attacks on the July 2015 agreement Tehran signed with the U.S. and five other world powers to limit its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

While Washington is eager to portray its latest actions in Syria as defensive measures, Mr. Assad’s regime and its Iranian allies view them as an aggression, noting that the Pentagon shot down a Syrian jet in Syrian airspace.

And by flexing their military reach in Syria with a missile launch, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and other regime hardliners risk inflaming more tension with the Trump administration — tension that could boil over in the coming war for dominance of southern Syria.

There is a danger that one of the many players in this conflict could overreach and provoke a new confrontation that spirals out of control.

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. He is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran

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