On June 18, 2017, prominent U.K. newspaper the Guardian asked an important question: “Has Trump opened the door to conflict with Iran?”
According to Foreign Policy, a pair of top White House officials are pushing to broaden the war in Syria against Iranian-backed troops who are currently posing a major threat to the American military’s goals in the region.
“Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top Middle East advisor, want the United States to start going on the offensive in southern Syria, where, in recent weeks, the U.S. military has taken a handful of defensive actions against Iranian-backed forces fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”
Thankfully, FP’s sources state that even the most traditional Iran hawks are nervous about such a plan, including Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis. FP reports:
“Despite the more aggressive stance pushed by some White House officials, Mattis, military commanders, and top U.S. diplomats all oppose opening up a broader front against Iran and its proxies in southeastern Syria, viewing it as a risky move that could draw the United States into a dangerous confrontation with Iran, defense officials said. Such a clash could trigger retaliation against U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Syria, where Tehran has armed thousands of Shiite militia fighters and deployed hundreds of Revolutionary Guard officers.”
However, as catastrophic as a potential war with Iran would be, there is a majorly overlooked elephant sitting on the battlefield that no one is talking about: the Russian military.
As Newsweek explained last week, both the Russian and American militaries are now battling ISIS in Raqqa — “but not as allies.” The fact that Russia is taking credit for an airstrike that reportedly may have killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Raqqa is a testament to the fact that both Russia and America’s armed forces are bombarding the same area. However, the fact remains that they are not working in tandem – far from it.
The Russian air force is bolstering the Syrian Arab Army (S.A.A.). According to a recent statement from the S.A.A., the U.S. military reportedly just shot down a Syrian government warplane in Raqqa, which is a flagrant act of war. In response to this violation of Syria’s sovereignty, Russia has released a statement of its own, warning the U.S.-led coalition it will now treat coalition warplanes as targets. Russia has also suspended the supposed “hotline” between Russia and the United States which was set up to avoid these types of scenarios.
Russia also recently confirmed that the U.S. had, indeed, deployed a long-range rocket launcher to the Al-Tanf base in Syria — a region where no ISIS fighters are present. Rather, that area is filled with Iranian-backed militia fighting under the banner of the S.A.A.
It needs to be further emphasized that ISIS’ last stand in Syria will pit the United States’ air force directly against Russia’s. This is not something that can simply be de-escalated through the use of a hotline because the U.S. and Russia have polar opposite interests in the country, and ISIS’ defeat is edging ever closer. Once ISIS is defeated, the two rivals will seek to influence who retakes control of the liberated areas.
Despite the ongoing massacre taking place in Raqqa right now as ISIS fighters flee the city, it is becoming increasingly clear that ISIS’ last stand will not take place in Raqqa but in a vitally strategic area called Deir ez-Zor, which is also home to an isolated Syrian government outpost.
“Military commanders in Damascus, Tehran and Moscow are setting their sights on the Syrian city of Deir el-Zour and the surrounding Middle Euphrates River Valley as the battleground for the fight against the jihadi group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“Coalition commanders and Pentagon officials say the overall battle plan will address the Islamic State buildup in Deir el-Zour. But with all eyes fixed on Raqqa, it remains to be seen how Syrian-led operations, backed by Russia, will affect that long-term strategy.”
But here is the potentially devastating news no one is talking about: Russia is already bombing the areas around Deir ez-Zor in full preparation for this battle. According to the Independent, Russia just claimed it killed around 180 ISIS militants and two prominent commanders, Abu Omar al-Belijiki and Abu Yassin al-Masri, very close to ISIS’ stronghold in Deir ez-Zor.
Why would Russia expend so much time, effort, money, and personnel – in the face of non-stop American-imposed sanctions – to prop up Syria’s president only for Vladimir Putin to sit back and watch as American-backed forces fight to retake vital Syrian cities?
The idea is inconceivable. Russia, Iran, and Syria have made too many important gains over the past two years to sit back and allow the U.S. to claim the victory against ISIS. In Iraq, anIranian-backed militia was crucial in defeating ISIS’ major strongholds. In Syria, the Syrian government and its allies have been the most heavily engaged entity fighting ISIS in the past year.
Further, at least according to Russia’s state-funded RT, Iran launched a mid-range ballistic missile attack on a position in Deir ez-Zor over the weekend, as well.
As allies of the Syrian government, Russia and Iran’s campaigns have an air of legitimacy. Iran is bound to Syria by a mutual defense treaty, which was formed as far back as 2005. The Syrian government requested Russian military assistance in 2015. This is no different than NATO members coming to the aid of a besieged NATO member, as required by the NATO Treaty (or NATO countries ganging up together on a smaller country that possesses a relatively weak military).
Conversely, the U.S. and its allies have no legal basis to operate militarily within Syrian territory. History will be forced to remember this ongoing crisis this way. When it comes to a discussion on how Russia and the U.S. could have avoided their respective air forces colliding with each other in the Syrian desert, the country that had no legal justification to be there (and shot down Syrian government jets) will ultimately be responsible.
Remember this as we edge closer and closer to a global confrontation: it is all occurring as part of a geopolitical chess game that has nothing to do with preserving our rights, freedoms, safety, or security.