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Iran is seeking to secure influence throughout Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, creating what has been dubbed the ‘Shia crescent’. To combat this threat, the United States and its allies are now showing more support for the Syrian rebels by sending them more arms to try to fend off a new push into the southeast by Iran-backed militias. These militias are focused on opening up an overland supply route between Iraq and Syria.
As a result, tensions have continued to escalate in this region of Syria. Government forces, supported by Iraqi militias, deployed in a challenge to the rebels. This has also coincided with a march towards the Syrian border by militias from Iraq. They reached the frontier adjoining northern Syria on Monday. A top Iraqi militia commander said a wider operation to take the area from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) started on Tuesday.
This demonstrates the shift in U.S. policy from country to country. In Iraq, the U.S. has fought alongside these Iranian backed militias against ISIL. Yet in Syria, Washington has lined up against Assad’s Iranian-backed government and wants to block further expansion of Iranian influence with its regional allies.
On May 18, U.S. forces led an air-raid against Iran-backed forces in Syria, which was denounced by Syria and Russia. The group of militiamen attacked by the U.S. coalition were advancing inside a protected “deconfliction zone” northwest of the southern town of al-Tanf, the military alliance said in a statement.
Also in May, the Syrian government declared both Badia and Deir Az Zor priorities of its campaign to reestablish its rule over Syria. The government is being helped by Iran and Russia, while the opposition is assisted by the West and regional states opposed to Assad.
The U.S. is also demanding that pro-regime forces vacate the deconfliction zone around Tanf. If they do not, their continued presence will be seen as a threat to coalition forces in the area. U.S. jets dropped leaflets this week on pro-government forces, instructing them to pull out of Tanf. However, the coalition would not confirm or deny the increase in weapons to the rebel forces.
A commander in the military alliance fighting on the side of Assad said the deployment of government forces and pro-Damascus Iraqi fighters in Badia would “obstruct all the plans of the MOC, Jordan, and America”. According to him, Assad would not allow the blocking of the [Shia] crescent. “Now, our axis is insistent on this matter and it will be accomplished,” said the non-Syrian commander.
The Iraqi Badr militia supported by Iran said its advance to the Syrian border would help the Syrian army reach the border from the other side.