On Thursday, the U.S. military announced that it had bolstered its “combat power” in southern Syria, warning that it viewed Iran-backed fighters in the area as a threat to nearby coalition troops fighting the Islamic State.
This is the latest sign of tension in the region, where the U.S. has forces at the base around the Syrian town of al-Tanf in support of local fighters.
“We have increased our presence and our footprint and prepared for any threat that is presented by the pro-regime forces,” said U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, referring to Iran-backed forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He also estimated that a small number of Iran-backed forces remained inside the “deconfliction” zone, which was meant to ensure the safety of U.S.-led coalition forces since a May 18 U.S. strike on their advancing formation.
At the same time, a larger number of Iran-backed forces have been massing directly outside of the zone, which was agreed to by the U.S. and Russia. This force is seen as threat by the U.S.-backed coalition. The U.S. military has also dropped about 90,000 leaflets this week warning the fighters inside the zone to depart, one U.S. official said. Officials in Baghdad are still trying to convince the pro-regime militias that they need to vacate the area.
This southeastern area of the Syrian desert, referred to as the Badia, has become an important front in the civil war raging throughout Syria. Essentially, both sides are attempting to capture land held by Islamic State, which is retreating as it comes under intense attacks in Iraq and along Syria’s Euphrates basin.
The militias have indicated that they are in the area to fight ISIS. However, analysts suspect that the militias’ primary goal is to establish a land corridor to link Iran with Damascus and its Shia proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. “It is a key part of the network of connections for Iran,” said Luke Coffey, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C.
U.S.-backed rebels took Tanf from the Islamic State last year, and regional intelligence sources say they mean to use it as a launchpad to capture Bukamai, a town on Syria’s border with Iraq and an important jihadist supply route.
While there has not been another incident between these forces since May 18, the level of tension is increasing and the Trump administration has given his ground commanders more leeway than the previous Obama administration.