Beirut: US-backed forces have begun an assault on Raqqa, Daesh’s hub in northern Syria, and signs are that they could capture the long-sought target with relative ease.
Yet the terror group’s commanders, who have withdrawn their toughest forces from the city, and most everyone else in Syria’s multifaceted war are looking ahead to an even more decisive battle in the south.
There, a complex confrontation is unfolding, with far more geopolitical import and risk.
Daesh is expected to make its last stand not in Raqqa — but in an area that encompasses the borders with Iraq and Jordan and much of Syria’s modest oil reserves, making it important in stabilising Syria and influencing its neighbouring countries.
Whoever lays claim to the sparsely populated area in this 21st-century version of the Great Game not only will take credit for seizing what is likely to be Daesh’s last patch of a territorial caliphate in Syria, but also will play an important role in determining Syria’s future and the post-war dynamics of the region.
With the stakes so high, the United States, Iran and Russia are all scrambling for advantage. They are building up their forces and proxy fighters and, increasingly, engaging in inflammatory clashes that threaten to escalate into a larger conflict.
On Thursday, a US pilot shot down an Iranian-made drone as big as an American Predator that had fired on US-backed Syrian fighters and US Special Forces advisers.
All have their eyes on Deir Al Zor province, where Daesh forces surround an estimated 200,000 people in a government-held section of the provincial capital of the same name.
The contested area also includes desert regions farther south with several border crossings, among them the critical highway connecting Damascus and Baghdad — coveted by Iran as a land route to Lebanon and its ally, the Hezbollah militia.
But what is really at stake are even larger issues. Will the Syrian government re-establish control of the country all the way to its eastern borders? Will the desert straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border remain a no man’s land ripe for militant control? If not, who will dominate there — forces aligned with Iran, Russia or the United States? Which Syrian factions will wield the most influence?
The moment is a “major crossroads” in the conflict, said Kamel Wazne, who studies Hezbollah, the United States and the Middle East and teaches at the American University of Beirut.
The Americans want to prevent the establishment of a “Shiite crescent” of influence from Iran to Lebanon, Wazne said, and to maintain “a piece of what is taking place in Syria.”
“They will not allow the Iranians and those they support to have a victory at the expense of the Americans in the whole region,” he added.
That, Wazne said, puts the United States at loggerheads with the pro-government alliance in Syria, especially Hezbollah and Iran. With President Donald Trump and his partners in Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf turning up the heat against Iran, Tehran and its allies will be determined, he said, to show they cannot be intimidated.
“They can drive the confrontation,” he said. “This camp is actually more determined to carry through with the fight, in their minds the ultimate confrontation.”
Moving east from the heart of Syria is the alliance backing President Bashar Al Assad, consisting of the Syrian army and Iran-backed militias, supported by Russian air power and Iranian advisers. Some reports even suggest that Russian advisers are active on the battlefield.
Indeed, on Friday, pro-government forces struck what could be a major blow to US plans, making a surprise advance to the Iraqi border that cut off US-backed troops, blocking their way to the front against Daesh in Deir Al Zor.
The lineup of combatants is dizzying. Moving north from the Jordanian border are Syrian rebels who have long fought the government but are now being trained to fight Daesh by US, British and Norwegian forces. They have a garrison near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders and the Baghdad highway, and receive air support from the US-led, anti-Daesh coalition.
Then there is a different US-backed force, the one attacking Daesh in Raqqa. There are signs that to take Raqqa without an all-out fight, they will let more Daesh fighters escape to the south. And their leaders have voiced ambitions to follow the fight south to Deir Al Zor.
That is a problematic prospect because the force, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, is led by Syrian Kurdish militias that have established a semi-autonomous Kurdish zone farther north and are distrusted by many Arabs. US officials have sought to allay those concerns by noting that the force is half Arab and saying it will hand over retaken areas to civilian local councils.
Finally, in Iraq, Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias have pushed west to the border with Syria.
With all these forces on a collision course, several recent escalations have raised fears of a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran, or even Russia.
While saying it does not seek confrontation with the Syrian government or its allies, the United States has begun deliberately bombing them, something it had not done before in the war, hitting Iranian-backed militias it deemed too close to Tanf, the site of the US and rebel garrison.
But the pro-government alliance has not backed down. It has denounced the US presence as illegal and continued to confront the allied forces, culminating in Thursday’s drone strike.
That episode showed that Iranian advisers, or perhaps even Iranian proxies like Hezbollah, are operating full-size drones in Syria and are willing to risk clashes with the United States.
Looming over everything is the question of how far Russia is prepared to back Iran — a tactical ally but one with which it differs strategically on major issues like Israel and the United States.
US generals believe that the answer is “not far.”
Defence secretary James Mattis even said Russia had tried to persuade the Iranian-backed forces not to approach the US base.
But diplomats in Beirut say Russia may be saying the opposite to its allies in Syria, and may see little reason to halt what could be an awkward test for the United States, which insists it does not want to get more deeply involved in Syria. The question remains whether it will risk war to protect a small base?