Exclusive: US considering wide-ranging strikes, ground operations against Iranian militias in eastern Syria
The US may begin wide-ranging airstrikes and ground operations against Iranian militias in eastern Syria, sources from US-supported opposition groups have exclusively told The New Arab’s Arabic-language service.
Iran has been a key backer of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in its conflict with Syrian rebels, which began after the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests in 2011.
Iranian-backed militias, which answer to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have a strong presence in eastern Syria. This is believed to be part of an Iranian strategy aimed at creating a land corridor from Tehran to the shores of the Mediterranean, passing through Iraq and Syria.
The Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria directly control the area between the towns Mayadeen and Albukamal in Deir az-Zour province and have built military bases including the Imam Ali Base, which is sometimes targeted by airstrikes from the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State group and Israel. Iran-backed militias are also present in Lebanon and Iraq.
US-backed Syrian opposition factions, which include Jaysh Usud Al-Sharqiya (the Army of the Lions of the East) and Maghaweer al-Thawra (The Revolutionary Commando Army) operate around the Tanf airbase in the Syrian desert on the border where Syria, Iraq, and Jordan meet.
Sources from these opposition military factions told The New Arab’s Arabic service that last week a meeting took place between US military officers and leaders of the opposition factions. While the declared aim of the meeting was simply for military commanders to get to know each other, the sources said that, “There seemed to be a plan by the international coalition for the factions to open two battle fronts, the first against the remnants of ISIS in the Syrian Desert and the second against Iranian militias in eastern Deirezzor province, south of the Euphrates.”
The sources said that a ground operation against the Iranian militias could begin after the coronavirus crisis ends. They added that they did not have information about when the operation could begin but said that Washington “would not tolerate a permanent Iranian presence in eastern Syria” and “would not be content in future just to carry out airstrikes against the dozens of Iranian militias occupying Syria”, nor would it allow the creation of a corridor from Iran to the eastern Mediterranean via Iraq and Syria.
Mudar Hammad Al-As’ad, a journalist and member of the Syrian opposition Council of Tribes and Clans told The New Arab’s Arabic service that the US wanted to create an “Arab army” separate from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US’s main partners in eastern Syria, to confront the Iranian militias in Deir al-Zour province.”
“The Americans have recently held meetings with sheikhs of Arab tribes, including the Aqidat, Baqqara and Jabbour clans to create an army that will cleanse the area of any Iranian or regime presence”, he said.
Al-As’ad said that this army would be in charge of administering the area from southern Hassakeh province to eastern Deir al-Zour province, separately from the Kurdish Autonomous Administration which currently controls most of northeastern Syria, adding that “there is almost daily bombing by coalition planes against Iranian militia concentrations, as well as against smuggling routes on the Euphrates between the SDF-held areas and the Iranian militia held areas.”
Some Syrian opposition sources have said that the US wants to create an alliance between the Kurdish-led SDF and the Syrian opposition groups operating around Tanf in order to fight the Iranian militias but Syrian writer Idris Naasan, who is close to the Kurdish Autonomous Administration told The New Arab’s Arabic service that there was “no need for a joint military operation between the international coalition and the SDF against the Iranian militias at this time.”
Naasan said that the Iranian militias operate in areas where Russian and regime troops are present, and are targeted by coalition airstrikes whenever they leave these areas and pose a threat to SDF and coalition bases.
Ever since the defeat of ISIS in eastern Syria in early 2019, the SDF has held most of Syria north and east of the Euphrates River, which separates their area of control from that of the Iranian militias.