The United States Is Getting Dragged Into the Fight for Syria’s South
America's allies find themselves trapped between the Islamic State and pro-Assad militias -- and the only thing keeping them safe is U.S. airstrikes.
AMMAN, Jordan — In recent months, the Syrian war finally seemed to be tilting in the direction of Muhannad al-Talla, the commander of a U.S.-backed rebel force. His group, Maghaweer al-Thawra (Commandos of the Revolution), which has about 800 vetted fighters, had been instrumental in pushing the Islamic State from the desert around the city of Palmyra. He was hoping that would just be the beginning. Plans were underway to advance to the Euphrates River, cutting off the jihadi organization’s de facto capital of Raqqa from the Iraqi border.
But one thing threatened to derail al-Talla’s past successes and future ambitions. During the first week of May, Shiite militias fighting on the side of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began filling the vacuum left by the Islamic State’s departure around the southern garrison where his forces are based. For al-Talla’s rebels, these militias amounted to an existential threat — a rival force that aimed to kill them or run them out of the country.
It was al-Talla’s good fortune that the U.S. military seemed to share his concern. When the pro-regime Shiite militias were only 17 miles from the base at al-Tanf, U.S F-16s conducted airstrikes against their positions, destroying multiple vehicles, including tanks and bulldozers.
Al-Talla said he had warned the U.S. commander at the base only 10 days before the strike that the pro-regime militias were advancing on the base. “I told him face to face that those militias cannot come closer because they will scuttle our plans to expel ISIS and they will kill us all,” he said in a Skype interview from the garrison.
It was the first time the United States, which has been training and advising armed opposition groups at al-Tanf for the past 18 months, conducted airstrikes against regime militias to defend Syrian rebel forces. It was also the first time that the United States had used force to maintain the “de-confliction zones” that it helped establish to prevent uncontrolled clashes with Russia and Iran inside Syria. On June 6, the U.S.-led coalition launched another airstrike targeting pro-regime militias approaching al-Tanf, destroying two artillery pieces and an anti-aircraft weapon.
The two strikes have thrown the spotlight on a little understood part of the U.S. involvement in the Syrian war. Al-Talla’s group is part of a 2-year-old Pentagon project to train and equip vetted rebel forces. Maghaweer al-Thawra fighters were mostly recruited from the al-Rukban camp roughly 12 miles from al-Tanf, which lies in a demilitarized zone between two berms that straddle the Jordan-Syria border. The fighters were trained in Jordan for several months before they were deployed to al-Tanf 18 months ago. U.S. special operation forces now provide the rebel recruits air cover and take part in their land operations against the Islamic State. They also supply the rebels with weapons from their bases in Jordan.
Al-Talla credits his group’s cooperation with the United States for its success in driving back the Islamic State. In the past six months, their combined efforts were able to shove the jihadi group from areas near the Jordanian border, starting with the al-Tanf base and the crossing with Jordan. In the past 10 weeks, his forces have advanced farther, pushing nearly 50 miles to the north.
Last month’s airstrikes on Shiite militias represent a marginal increase of the U.S. government’s commitment. But that shift comes with significant new risks. Specifically, it threatens to put Washington on a collision course with Iran, which is the main patron of the Shiite militias and has been seeking to create a land corridor linking Tehran and Baghdad to Syria and Lebanon. This would allow them to move heavier missiles and weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It could also put American special forces in conflict with the Russian military, which provides the Assad regime and its allied militias with air cover.
“The Trump administration wants to push back against Iran and put it on notice,” said Nicholas Heras, the Bacevich fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Through the counter-ISIS campaign, the U.S. can capture territory in eastern Syria from ISIS to prevent Assad and Iran from advancing there.”
Since the airstrike, al-Talla said the pro-regime militias continue to test the waters, advancing and retreating near the base. In a separate effort, two other rebel groups staged a new operation this week to expel Shiite militias from the area and were attacked by Russian jets.
The pro-regime militias’ presence has delayed efforts to fight the Islamic State in the Euphrates Valley.
“We are now facing a two-front war,” al-Talla said. “We continue to target ISIS, but our main focus is directed toward [the militias] … 90 percent of whom are Shiites from Iran and Iraq and Lebanese Hezbollah. They are now close, and they threaten the region.”
Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the region, has been watching the developments nervously on its 230-mile-long border with Syria. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi recently warned in a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that Jordan does not want to see “sectarian militias” along its border.
If the pro-regime militias test the United States again, Washington would no doubt face pressure from Arab allies, including the Jordanian government and its partners inside Syria, to strike again. But that could risk dragging the United States deeper into the country’s civil war.
“If the U.S. conducts another strike, it will send another signal that could risk an escalation chain,” Heras said. “The Shiite militia forces mobilized by Iran would not want to concede that area to the U.S.”
For the rebel forces near al-Tanf, the fight against the Islamic State and the pro-regime militias are linked. They want U.S. officials to understand that they can’t confront one enemy without confronting the other.
“[The Syrian regime] prevented us from fighting ISIS and is now bombing us,” said Tlass Salameh, the commander of the Lions of the East, while sipping tea in his house in Amman. “The Syrian regime is taking advantage of the deescalation zones and it’s rallying its militias.”
Saeed Saif, an official with the Forces of the Martyr Ahmad Abdou, was roughly seven miles from al-Tanf when he heard the coalition airstrikes. He saw the flags of the Iraqi paramilitary group Kata’ib Hezbollah in the distance. When describing the Syrian battlefield, he reached for a metaphor first used by Jordan’s King Abdullah — that of a “crescent” of Iran-backed forces stretching from Tehran, through Baghdad and Damascus, and on to Beirut.
“Daesh was a poisoned dagger stabbing the rebels,” he said. “But we were not prepared to see the regime and its militias advancing to the areas we cleared from Daesh.… Now with the Iranian project, the crescent has turned into a full moon.”
NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images