Last week, U.S. planes attacked a pro-Assad convoy in southern Syria. The convoy had violated a restricted zone around a base where United States and British Special Forces train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS.
I wrote about the attack here, noting that the area in question is of strategic importance to Assad, Syrian rebels, Iran, Russia, and the U.S., and hence a likely future battleground quite apart from the fight against ISIS. I added that although our attack on the convoy might presage U.S. entry to that battleground, it might also prove to be a one-off, prompted by a specific violation of a “deconfliction” agreement.
In today’s Washington Post, Josh Rogin argues in favor of major U.S. involvement in the impending fight for control of the region in question as a means of dealing a blow to Iran and helping to improve the outlook for Syria. He writes:
According to officials, experts and rebel leaders on the ground, an ongoing and rapidly accelerating confrontation in that area was triggered by an offensive by Iranian-backed militias. Iran is trying to establish strategic control over territory creating a corridor from Lebanon and Syria through Baghdad to Tehran.
If successful, the Iranian campaign would drastically reshape the regional security situation, harm the fight against the Islamic State in the nearby city of Deir al-Zour and directly undermine U.S. efforts to train and equip an indigenous Sunni Arab fighting force, which is essential to establishing long-term stability.
[This is] a fight that the United States cannot and should not avoid. It’s also an opportunity for Trump to accomplish what his administration says it wants to do in the Middle East: Push back against Iranian aggression and expansionism.
Iran does not intend to avoid the fight:
The Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister said that the bombs hit a militia backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Forces called Kataib Imam Ali. After the strikes, the Iranian FARS news agency reported that Iran will send 3,000 Hezbollah fighters to the al-Tanf region to thwart a “U.S. plot.”
Anti-Assad rebels aren’t avoiding it either:
Two Syrian rebel groups opened up a front against the Iranian-backed forces about two weeks ago, in response to the Iranian campaign, the rebel leader said. One of them is working directly with the U.S. military. The other is supported by the military operations center led by the CIA and allies in Jordan.
Even absent public acknowledgment from Washington, the rebel groups believe they have tacit support from the United States to prevent Iran and the regime from taking over the area. That belief is uniting rebel groups on the ground, who have long wanted to fight Iran and the regime, in addition to the Islamic State.
Thus, says Rogin, the battle for Syria’s south is already on and the Trump team must decide if the United States will play a “decisive role.”
Missing from Rogin’s article is any discussion of what it would take for the U.S. to play “a decisive role” in the fight. Would training plus air support be sufficient or would a large number of U.S. ground forces have to fight the Iranians and their proxies? And what would Russian involvement, if any, likely be? Finally, are the anti-Assad rebels we would back be jihadists themselves.
Rogin’s omission is understandable. He probably lacks reliable information that would enable him reliably to make these assessments, and prefers not to speculate.
For the Trump administration, however, these assessment can’t be avoided, and there’s a good chance they will drive the decision.