This is big: Russia expands scope of Syrian war with attack on U.S.-backed rebels

This is big: Russia expands scope of Syrian war with attack on U.S.-backed rebels
New Syrian Army fighters capture At Tanf in March 2016. (Image via Twitter, Bosno Sinjić)

If you haven’t been convinced that Iran is laboring to forge paths of military advance across Iraq, toward Israel and the rest of the Mediterranean coast, consider where Iran’s partner Russia just attacked a U.S.-backed rebel force.

The image in your mind, if you’ve paid attention to MSM maps of the Syria conflict in the last year, would be of factional clashes in the swath across northern Syria from the Kurdish-held areas through Raqqa to the Mediterranean coast, west of Aleppo and Idlib Province.  (See first map.)  That’s where the major fighting has been taking place: between ISIS, the Iran- and Russia-backed Assad regime, the Kurds, and various Syrian rebel forces – with Turkish artillery fire and air-to-ground attacks on Kurdish positions along the border thrown in.

The U.S. and Russia have been at cross-purposes in this area for some time.  But that’s not where the Russians conducted air strikes this week, in a move being strenuously objected to by the U.S. military.

The Russian air strikes were on a border crossing at At-Tanf – a remote border crossing into Iraq, close to the tri-border junction of Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.

Main area of factional fighting marked by shaded area in the north.  BBC map from 2015; some ISIS holdings no longer valid.  Author annotation added.
Main area of factional fighting marked by shaded area in the north. BBC map from 2015; some ISIS holdings no longer valid. Author annotation added.

This crossing post is in extreme southeastern Syria, a long way from the Assad regime’s main lines of confrontation with ISIS.

Moreover – and this is the key – ISIS’s hold on the At-Tanf border crossing has been effectively broken in the last few months.  Although ISIS seized it in early 2015, it was taken by New Syrian Army rebels in March of 2016, and retaken by them, with U.S. and Jordanian support, in May.

With this strike, Russia has stopped even pretending that her military activities are about “defeating ISIS,” in the way American minds interpret that.

With regard to what Russia’s activities are about, think Russian for a minute.  Your Western brain wants military campaigning to be about winning battles, rolling up armies and territory, declaring victory, shaking hands with a new government in some form, and printing new maps.

Sucker.

Putin’s Russia has no intention of “going home” from Syria, nor does Russia have a political vision of peace and stability for Syria.  Get that through your head, and you’re 80% of the way there.

Russia’s plan isn’t about achieving whatever Iran wants either, even though the two nations are working together.  We’ll talk about Iran in a minute.  But for Russia, the plan in Syria is all about having strategic position for Russia, and leverage in regional points of conflict.  Whatever Iran wants to do, this is what’s important: that Iran must deal with Russia in order to do it.

The same applies to everyone else: Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the European nations.  China.  The U.S. (ROTFLOLz).

It’s about dynamics, not end-states.  Modern Westerners tend to think of this sort of maneuvering as territorial gangsterism.  The Asian nations think of it as “international relations.”

Syria, besides being the path of least resistance for Putin’s regional leverage concept, has important geographic advantages for Russia (like being on the other side of Turkey and having prime Mediterranean frontage).

But Syria is also the main effort of Iran’s campaign to drive westward and establish a beachhead on the Med.  And look where At-Tanf falls on the map we’ve been using to depict Iran’s major campaign pathways through Iraq, and into Syria and the Jordan Valley.

Iran cuts a path through Iraq -- to which At-Tanf is now operationally relevant.  The whole geography of Mesopotamia and the Levant is now best understood as a theater of military strategy. (Google map; author annotation)
Iran cuts a path through Iraq — to which At-Tanf is now operationally relevant. The whole geography of Mesopotamia and the Levant is now best understood as a theater of military strategy and confrontation. It’s not just “Sykes-Picot” that’s “dead”; it’s “Westphalia” that doesn’t apply.  (Google map; author annotation)

It’s no accident that Russia, seemingly out of the blue, attacked the U.S.-backed rebel force holding At-Tanf just at this particular time.  There are two things in play, and one is that a rebel-held border crossing is inherently a vulnerability for the Assad regime, still nominally the national, central government of Syria.  But the location of the border crossing means there isn’t a lot anyone can do with it, as long as it’s in U.S.-backed hands.  In a strategic sense, even though ISIS is up the road, the border crossing’s disposition has been stabilized advantageously – if the Russian goal is to “defeat ISIS.”

It shouldn’t be particularly urgent to put that border crossing at risk again, instead of leaving it in rebel hands – not if the main strategic objective is to secure the crucial corridor running from Aleppo to Damascus for the Assad regime.

But the other thing in play is Iran’s push westward up the Euphrates Corridor.  That’s what the current fight for Fallujah is: the Iranian westward push.  The head of Iran’s Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani, is in charge of it, and the fighting force is built around the Shia Basiji militias trained and backed by Iran.

The mainstream media obediently report as if it’s truly the Iraqis in charge of driving ISIS out of Fallujah.  But it’s been clear for more than a year that the fight to push ISIS back along the Euphrates Corridor is an Iranian fight, and is positioning Iran to claim the southern military path across Anbar Province and into the Jordan Valley.

The dogleg to the north through At-Tanf needs to be secured for this advance.  No opposition forces can be left in this area, able to flank an Iranian advance or to call on military support, across its southerly path, from Amman.  From the Iranian standpoint, it’s better all around to hold a veto over the entire area and have control of both major pathways to the Jordan River.

At-Tanf is a blip on the moonscape of an inhospitable backwater – until someone wants to use it for something.  Russia, with her oddly-timed air strikes there, has just signaled clearly that Iran wants to.  And no, Russia’s not doing Iran’s dirty work for her.  Russia’s noting where Iran intends to be, and how Iran’s timeline is developing, and Russia is getting there first.

No extra points for obvious allusions to the Persians inventing chess, and the Russians perfecting it.  The salient question for Americans is how long our scattered, vulnerable troops can remain unmolested in this theater over which we now have no control, and in which most of the armed actors have been actively thwarting our supposed intentions for months now.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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