The New York Times reports that American warplanes in Syria attacked a pro-government convoy today, after it ignored warnings and violated a restricted zone around a base where United States and British Special Forces train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. American officials say that more than 20 vehicles drove within 18 miles of the al-Tanf base in southern Syria which houses the American and British Special Forces.
This constituted a breach of the so-called deconfliction zone radius around the encampment. That zone was created by an agreement between the United States and Russia. It is intended to avoid military confrontations.
Our military made the right call here. There’s no point in having a “deconfliction zone” agreement if pro-Assad forces can avoid it with impunity.
The pro-Assad forces paid for their violation. Syrian opposition fighters say there were numerous casualties and several vehicles were hit, including at least four tanks.
But there’s a bigger picture to consider here. According to the Times, once Raqqa falls, ISIS fighters are expected to make their last stand in the region where today’s air strike against the pro-Assad convoy occurred. And, in addition to the fight against ISIS, there will almost surely be a battle among anti-ISIS forces for control of this area, which contains Syria’s oil reserves and connects Syria to Iraq.
The U.S., Russia, and Iran are interested parties. Says the Times:
The area is strategically important to the United States, which wants to stabilize Iraq where it has a long-term military and political investment, and to Russia, which wants to strengthen the Syrian government’s control of as much territory as possible.
And the area is critical to Iran, which wants secure corridors from its borders to the Mediterranean to reinforce its influence in Lebanon and maintain an ability to challenge Israel. All claim to be battling the Islamic State but have refused to collaborate.
Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside the Syrian government, including the Lebanese group Hezbollah and a number of Iraqi groups, have moved hundreds of fighters east toward [this area] in recent days. Syrian government forces have also moved toward [it] according to pro-government news media.
Does today’s airstrike by the U.S. presage significant future U.S. engagement in s struggle for control of this region? Not necessarily. President Trump will have to decide later what level of engagement, if any, the U.S. will undertake in this region for purposes other than fighting ISIS. T
Today’s strike does not commit us to any course, but it does give Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad something to think about.