- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
American warplanes bombed an Iranian-backed militia that entered a supposed no-go zone near a U.S garrison in southern Syria on Tuesday, U.S. officials said.
The strike marked the second by a U.S. aircraft in less than a month and signals a growing risk of direct conflict between American and Iranian forces and their partners in Syria. The air raid came after the militia aligned with the Syrian regime and Iran failed to heed a warning to leave the area.
U.S. officials said that the force of about 60 fighters armed with tanks and anti-aircraft weapons entered an exclusion zone around the base at al Tanf, where American Special Operations Forces train Syrian rebels. Before unleashing their bombs, American military officials first contacted their Russian counterparts who are allied with the Iranian-backed force. But when the new column refused to leave, the Americans struck. It is unclear how many casualties resulted.
In a statement, U.S. Central Command said 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.”
Even after the second strike, Syrian government forces and their Iranian backers remained in place within the so-called exclusion zone, U.S. officials said. American forces declared a 55-mile area around the base to be off-limits to pro-regime forces, and informed the Russians late last year.
Pentagon officials would not say what their plans are if the remaining forces refuse to move out of the area. After last month’s airstrike, U.S. planes dropped leaflets demanding the fighters leave.
President Donald Trump has traded hostile rhetoric with Iran but his administration has yet to articulate how it plans to address an increasingly volatile situation in Syria with Iranian advisors and proxies in close proximity to U.S. forces and their local allies.
“I don’t know that there’s a detailed policy carved in stone about what we will or will not allow the Iranians to do,” an administration official told FP before Tuesday’s air raid. “But it’s something we would watch very closely.”
The strike came on the same day U.S. and coalition aircraft were busy supporting thousands of Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces assaulting the de-facto Islamic State capital of Raqqa, the terrorist group’s last urban stronghold in what is left of its “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.
The Raqqa assault comes even as U.S. officials acknowledge that most of the Islamic State’s leadership has already fled the city for the more isolated Euphrates River valley running from the city east to the Iraqi border. But military planners have stuck with plans drawn up under the Obama administration and continued under President Donald Trump, predicated on the fall of Mosul and Raqqa before launching an effort to push the terror group out of the valley and Deir Ezzor province.
U.S. officials view the Iranian movement near al Tanf, in the extreme south of Syria, as a probing action to test the U.S.-trained forces there, and possibly act as a blocking force to prevent them from moving north to Deir Ezzor.
The Syrian regime wants to eventually retake the province, and Iran views the province and the river valley as a vital conduit to maintain influence from Iraq, through Syria and into Lebanon.
Speaking at an event in Washington last week, Lt. Gen. Thomas Trask, vice commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, expressed concern that loosening economic sanctions on Iran could give the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a freer hand in training and equipping proxy forces in nearby countries.
“If anything, increased defense dollars in Iran are likely to go toward increasing that network, looking for ways to expand it,” Trask said. “We’ve already seen evidence of them taking units and officers out of the conventional side that are working with the IRGC in Syria,” the general added, declaring that despite the effort, “they’re not winning in Syria,” and without Russian air support they would be unable to operate.
The 55,000-strong U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces moving on Raqqa are a mix of Arab and Kurdish fighters bolstered by American advisors who can call in artillery and aircraft to support their movements. It remains unclear how close to the fight the Americans will get, but “they won’t be with the lead elements that are kicking down doors and going on raids,” spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad Col. Ryan Dillon, told FP on Tuesday. The advisors will be able to get close to the fight, however, as long as they stop at what U.S. Army doctrine calls the “last line of concealment” close to the front line.
The U.S. has supplied the SDF with small arms, machine guns, armored vehicles, and heavy weapons to face the threat of armored suicide vehicles that the Islamic State has used in Mosul and elsewhere.
The Syrian Kurds received their first shipment of American equipment on May 30, after U.S. officials told Turkey that it would supply them as well as the Syrian Arabs, a move that has angered Ankara. Turkey considers the Kurdish YPG to be the armed wing as the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a designated terrorist group inside Turkey that has waged a multi-decade campaign to carve out an independent Kurdish state. The United States has identified the PKK as a terrorist organization, but insists the YPG is a separate group.
The invasion of the city comes as no surprise, as the SDF has been encircling the city for months, and U.S. airstrikes have been bombing Islamic State positions for much of the past year.
Pentagon officials say it is unclear how many Islamic State leaders remain in Raqqa as the noose has slowly tightened and many leaders have fled to Deir Ezzor and elsewhere. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Tuesday that that plan will continue to prioritize Raqqa however, and “there’s a sequencing” to the war that American military leaders want to stick with, even as ISIS leaders “will surely try and build” their external plotting headquarters elsewhere.
“They want very much to be able to strike us,” outside of Iraq and Syria, he said.
Foreign Policy’s Dan De Luce contributed to this report.
Photo Credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images