After the Iraqi military, with U.S. aerial support, dislodged the Islamic State (IS) from Mosul, IS fighters have dashed to the new front lines in Iraq and Syria. They stand and fight when necessary, but are equally comfortable abandoning territory for more hardened positions. In Iraq, the IS remains fortified in small towns along the river Tigris, south of the Iraqi Kurdish enclave. Iraqi forces — including the Iranian-trained militias — have begun to move to the city of Hawija, where the new self-styled caliph, Abu Haitham al-Obaidi, is in command. The battle for Hawija will not take the nine months that it took to remove the IS from Mosul. But it will be as vicious.
Meanwhile, U.S. bombers continue to strike the Syrian city of Raqqa, which remains in IS hands. U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces are moving slowly to encircle the city. Their advance is entirely helped by the horrific levels of bombardment that the city has had to endure. The UN has complained of a ‘staggering loss of life’. Numbers are unavailable. The atmosphere is electric and the city could fall any day. Further south, near the border between Iraq and Syria, another war is brewing. This is perhaps the front line of the next major battle, for the future of both Iraq and Syria. The U.S. has made it clear that it would like to deny Iran any future role in either Iraq or Syria.
Iran’s great influence
In Iraq, the Iranians have become indispensable. Their close allies govern in Baghdad, while their trained militias have been fighting alongside the Iraqi Army against the IS. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would have lost Damascus without Iranian military support as well as the assistance of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. It is impossible to imagine a scenario where Iran does not have influence in Damascus and Baghdad.
Early into the Syrian war, the IS and various other rebel groups seized the border towns that link Iraq to Syria. This meant that Iran lost its crucial land bridge to resupply the Syrian government and Hezbollah. It had to rely on sending military hardware by an expensive air bridge. The U.S. pressured the Iraqi government to prevent these flights, and to cut off Syria from Iranian support. Iraq refused and continued to allow Iranian aircraft to carry material to Syria. But the land bridge could not be re-established.
Over the past six months, Syrian troops, with the support of Iran-backed militias (including the Afghan Fatemiyoun Division) and of Russian jets, have moved closer to the border town of Tanf. The U.S., eager to prevent the reopening of these roadways that link Iran to the Mediterranean Sea, built a base at Tanf. U.S. Special Forces operated from there alongside anti-government groups such as Maghawir al-Thawra and Shohada al-Qaryatayn, both trained by the CIA in Jordan. This U.S. airbase sits perilously, surrounded by Syrian and Iranian troops. When these troops move near the base, U.S. aircraft target them. Syrian government officials say that the U.S. has airlifted some of their assets from this base to one of their eight bases in north-eastern Syria, from where they are conducting ground operations against the IS. In June, Iran’s leading strategist, General Qassim Soleimani, made a visit to Tanf. It is sign of how seriously the Iranians take this sector of the war.
North of this base sits Syria’s main city in the east, Deir ez-Zor. Held by the government, the city has been under siege by the IS since 2014. It is in the vicinity of Deir ez-Zor that Syria’s remaining oil reserves sit. Mr. Assad’s forces have been eager to break its siege, not only to relieve the desperate civilians, but to control the oilfields and the border. Iraqi aircraft — with Syrian permission — have been bombing IS targets around the city.
The U.S. would like to prevent such coordination, but it has been unable to do so. Pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to absorb the militias into the formal Iraqi Army, which would get an infusion of U.S. cash, has not worked. Russian and Iranian forces helped Mr. Assad take back Arak, a key town on the M20 highway from Damascus to Deir ez-Zor. It is likely that the Syrian government will beat the Americans to that part of the border.
The defeat of the IS is inevitable. But this is not the end of the war. The next conflict has already begun, with Iran in the gunsights of the U.S. Clashes between the U.S. and Iranian forces in Syria could spiral out of control.
Vijay Prashad is the author of ‘The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution’