Just days ago, Israel openly voiced its frustrations with the United States for not taking a stronger role in countering Iran’s growing influence in neighboring Syria, a red line for Israel that has them planning to assault Syria’s sovereignty in order to defend its interests.
“It is convenient for the Americans to let us be their proxy against Iran in Syria,” one senior Israeli official said, according to the Times of Israel. “We are very worried.”
“Let me be direct. There is a need for greater American involvement in making sure that Iran doesn’t turn Syria into a puppet state,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan last week reportedly told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Every day that Iran entrenches itself in Syria brings war closer. There is no vacuum.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan last week reportedly told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Every day that Iran entrenches itself in Syria brings war closer. There is no vacuum.”
“If the U.S. chooses not to be a major player in shaping the future of Syria, then others will — and trust me, it won’t be the democratically elected representatives of the Syrian people,” Erdan added.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) recent annual policy conference in Washington focused intently on Iran, particularly in relation to Trump’s longstanding strategy of derailing the Iranian nuclear agreement formed in 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Writing for Foreign Policy, former ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro acknowledged that the U.S.’ open-ended military presence in Syria was purported to have five objectives, as identified by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. They include “preventing Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, including by holding key border areas to prevent the establishment of an Iran-controlled land bridge.”
However, this strategy was put into doubt when Donald Trump stated last month that the U.S. was in Syria for one reason only — “to get ISIS” and “go home.” General Joseph Votel of the U.S. Central Command also testified before the House Armed Services Committee last month and stated that countering Iran is not one of the coalition missions in Syria.
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Despite its tough rhetoric, Israel is not in a position to take on Iran directly. Last year, a top Israeli general tasked with writing his country’s defense policy admitted that Israel cannot take on Iran’s military alone, making it clear that Israel would need American intervention. In April 2013, the U.S. Senate Committee passed Resolution 65 to back Israel should it be drawn into a conflict with Iran (remember, this was passed under the Obama administration, the same administration that some people felt was not pro-Israel enough). Vice President Mike Pence put the resolution into practice this week, stating at AIPAC’s event that the U.S. will support Israel if it is attacked by Iran.
The truth is that while Israel voices its frustration with what it terms as U.S. “inaction,” a showdown between Iran and the United States in Syria is becoming increasingly inevitable. Whether the U.S. admits it or not, and whether intentionally done or not, the American mission on the ground in Syria is preventing Iranian military entrenchment of the country by blocking key border areas to deny Iranian-backed forces a land bridge stretching from Tehran through Syria and into the territory of Iran’s other close allies.
After reports began circulating last month that Russian personnel had died in a U.S.-led assault in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, the media was quick to paint the incident as one of Russian-backed aggression against the United States.
Never mind that according to independent journalist and Middle East correspondent Yochanan Visser, recordings of alleged Russian mercenaries after American airstrikes struck pro-Syrian forces that circulated online and in prominent mainstream media outlets were actually recordings of a battle in Ukraine, not Syria. German newspaper Der Spiegel also confirmed that “the only verifiable sources for the decimation of hundreds of Russians are the photos and videos circulating on the internet or from Russian sources that are passed on to Western journalists,” and that “some of them show footage from eastern Ukraine that was later doctored or even the demo version of a video game…”
However, this is only the beginning. The true nature of this alleged incident involving American airstrikes on pro-Syrian forces should shock us to the core because it paints a very grim picture of what’s to come.
Just last week, Der Spiegel published its report on the confrontational incident in Deir ez-Zor after sending journalists to the region to investigate it for themselves. According to their investigation:
At 5 a.m. on Feb. 7, around 250 fighters south of Deir ez-Zor attempted to cross from the west bank of the Euphrates to the east using a military pontoon bridge. They included members of the militias of two tribes, the Bekara and the Albo Hamad, who are fighting for Assad’s regime with Iranian backing, soldiers of the 4th Division as well as Afghan and Iraqi fighters with the Fatimiyoun and Zainabiyoun brigades, which are under Iranian command. A soldier with the 4th Division recounted that the units had spent a week gathering on the property of the military airport. Witnesses say that no Russian mercenaries took part in the attempted crossing.” [emphasis added]
As well as an initial advance, Iranian-backed militias also came to the south and attacked the SDF base that same night. The U.S. response was, in turn, wholly aggressive.
And the Americans struck back with their entire destructive arsenal. They deployed rocket-equipped drones, combat helicopters, heavy AC 130 aircraft, nicknamed ‘gun boats,’ to fire on targets on the ground, rockets and ground artillery,” Der Spiegel reported.
According to the German newspaper, no Russian mercenaries took part in the attacks on the U.S-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) base in Syria, and the mercenaries who did die were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Among those stationed in Tabiya was a small contingent of Russian mercenaries. But the two militia sources said they did not participate in the fighting. Still, they said, 10 to 20 of them did in fact lose their lives,” Der Spiegel reported. “They said a total of more than 200 of the attackers died, including around 80 Syrian soldiers with the 4th Division, around 100 Iraqis and Afghans and around 70 tribal fighters, mostly with the al-Baqir militia.”
In other words, it was Iranian-backed militias that advanced on the U.S. base in Deir ez-Zor, and Russian mercenaries were killed, perhaps as an unintended consequence. As Anti-Media documented throughout 2017, Iran has been looking to create a bridge from Tehran through Syria that would connect Iran not only with the rest of Syria but also with Iraq and Lebanon. This is a deal-breaker not only for the anti-Shia axis of nations but also the United States, which has injected itself into the country simply to act as a barrier to Iran’s regional ambitions.
What we are witnessing right now is the U.S. military enforcing its new Syria policy, almost exactly as Tillerson described it to be (even in the face of the more recent denials of a policy targeting Iran’s expanding influence). As explained by independent journalist and Middle East correspondent Yochanan Visser:
What happened next was not a Russian attack on the U.S. Special Forces, as some have tried to point out, but an American attempt to enforce its new policy in eastern Syria. This policy is aimed at preventing Iran from completing the land corridor it has been building during the war against ISIS.”
The implications of this attack are much broader than first imagined, particularly now that we have some deeper insight into what actually took place at the time. The U.S. has clearly shown that it will apply deadly force to implement this broader anti-Iranian strategy, even if that force results in Iranian, Russian, and Syrian deaths.
It not only made clear to Iran that the Trump Administration will enforce its new policy toward the Islamic Republic and its red lines in Syria but also sent a message to the Russians,” Visser also wrote. “The United States will defend the SDF controlled territories in eastern Syria, which are home to a large part of Syria’s energy resources, as its own territory even if that means risking a confrontation with the Russian military.”
Whether Donald Trump admits or not (and whether or not he has any say in the matter, considering that his generals on the ground can call in airstrikes without any oversight), the U.S. military is first and foremost in Syria to confront Iran. It is not clear whether Iran’s proxies will let this issue go without a fight, but the fact that they had been amassing on the U.S. base and launched a number of offensives should already speak volumes as to the geostrategic importance of the region to Iran and its allies.
While Israel continues to play the abandoned victim card, the U.S. is quite clearly in Syria to prevent Iran from establishing its overarching bridge of influence. This is arguably the only reason the U.S. went into Syria in the first place. Therefore, Israel is incorrect when it claims the U.S. is not doing enough to confront Iran. Sooner or later, the Iranian military presence and the American military presence will clash in a showdown unless drastic diplomatic intervention of some kind can prevent it.
It should also be noted that the U.S. and Israel are currently conducting their annual joint military exercises, involving thousands of troops on both sides.
Right now, the only thing that could possibly stop a potential war between Iran and the U.S. is if Iran and its allies on the ground decide to allow the U.S. to station itself in Syria – forever. But why should they?
As the Financial Times lamented:
Such baleful precedents might give pause to anyone before starting another war — in this instance, mainly Israel versus Iran — but probably will not. If the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia continue to think it is possible to bomb the way to a better future, why should Russia and Iran play it differently — even as they outplay their opponents, at least for now?”
Top Photo | This photo released by Hammurabi’s Justice News and MaT shows U.S. Special Forces personnel posing with U.S.-backed Syrian rebels in southern Syria, July, 2017.
Darius Shahtahmasebi is a practicing attorney with an interest in human rights, international law, and journalism. He is a graduate of the University of Otago, where he obtained degrees in Law and Japanese. Follow him on Twitter at @TVsLeaking.
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