As the Iran- and Russia-backed pro-Assad coalition is fighting ISIS group in its last Syrian stronghold — Al-Bukamal, on the border with Iraq — the contours of a new major conflict in the devastated country are emerging.
This conflict will be about the Iranian presence in the Syrian Arabic Republic and could lead to a confrontation between Russia and the U.S. on one hand and Israel and Iran and its proxies on the other hand.
On Nov. 8, Russia, Jordan and the U.S. agreed upon a memorandum of principle that included the establishment of an ‘exclusionary zone’ along the border between Syria and Jordan, as well as the Syrian Israeli border on the Golan Heights.
This zone should be free of “foreign forces,” in other words, Iran’s Quds Force, the brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps that was established to expand the Islamic Revolution of 1979 beyond Iran’s borders, and Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah and its Iraqi equivalent Harakat al-Nujaba would be banned from entering the border region.
Israel opposed the deal because it would not distance Iranian forces far enough from the border with Syria on the Golan Heights.
The buffer zone is currently less than 20 miles at its widest — and at some places along the Jordan-Syria border, less than 3 miles wide.
The Israeli concerns are shared by experts at the Institute for the Study of War, which just published a report detailing the Iranian threat to Israel via Syria and Lebanon.
“The ‘de-escalation zone’ in Southern Syria will ultimately preserve rather than roll back Iran’s long-term position,” according to the ISW report.
“The deal fails to constrain Iran and al Qaeda despite the decreased violence in Southwest Syria. Iran continues to consolidate its presence along the Golan Heights through a network of proxy forces while retaining significant positions in Southern Syria,” the report added, blaming Russia for the failure of the implementation of the exclusionary zone.
ISW thinks this failure will ultimately lead to a confrontation between the Israeli military and Iran and its proxies because the memorandum of principle doesn’t address the Iranian military buildup in Syria and the encroachment of Hezbollah upon the Israeli border on the northwestern part of the Golan Heights.
This is the area where Israel threatened direct intervention in the Syrian war less than two weeks ago after a clash between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the former al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, and the Iranian-backed Syrian army, which is currently dominated by Shiite militias.
On Saturday, the Israeli Defense Forces opened fire on the pro-Assad coalition after regime forces tried to set up a new army base at the foot of Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights, the highest mountain in Israel which is home to an IDF base.
The incident came a day after the Israeli Eros satellite confirmed a BBC report which claimed Iran has already built a military base less than 31 miles from the Israel-Syria border on the mountainous plateau.
Channel 2 in Israel published images of a permanent Iranian military base outside the Syrian city of El-Kiswah. The publication of the images prompted a new warning that Israel would not tolerate Iranian forces to set up camp in the vicinity of the Israeli border on the Golan Heights but ISW confirmed Hezbollah is doing exactly that.
The ISW said elite forces of the Iran-founded and -backed Lebanese terrorist organization are currently deploying along the Israeli border in southern Lebanon and on the Syrian Golan Heights after Hezbollah put all of its forces on high alert this weekend.
Other reports said the pro-Assad coalition was advancing toward the Israeli border in the Kuneitra Province, which borders Israel.
Iran and its allies, meanwhile, are trying to leap the last hurdle toward the establishment of a land bridge to connect Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea and the Israeli Golan Heights.
That hurdle is the border town Al-Bukamal on the Syria-Iraq border, which was the scene of intense fighting between ISIS group and the pro-Assad coalition last week.
The importance of the conquest of Al Bukamal was underlined by the presence of Qassem Soleimani, the brilliant commander of the Iranian Quds Force who is now overseeing the battle for the liberation of the border town.
Photos of Soleimani inspecting positions of the Hashd al-Shaabi umbrella organization of predominantly Shiite militias in Iraq were published by Harakat al-Nujaba, and they confirmed earlier reports that the Iraqi militia had crossed into Syria to assist the pro-Assad coalition. The coalition won the race for control over this strategically important border town after the U.S.-backed and Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces became bogged down in Kishma, 17 miles north of Al-Bukamal.
The SDF has tried to secure the border area between Turkey, Iraq and Syria, but lost the race for the most important stretch, thus enabling Iran to complete the land corridor to Israel and the Mediterranean Sea.
The question is now whether the defeat of the barbaric ISIS group will lead to an American exodus from Syria.
A statement by Defense Secretary James Mattis last week indicated a continued American presence in east and north Syria. Mattis said the U.S. doesn’t intend to “walk away” from Syria at this point and developments on the ground seem to confirm the secretary’s statement.
Israeli American Middle East expert Jonathan Spyer seemed to confirm Mattis’ statement and reported Friday on evidence of extensive U.S. military construction in Syrian Kurdistan, which exists of three cantons along the border with Turkey.
Spyer wrote the U.S. military is building airstrips and bases in Rumeilan and in Manbij and Kobani, two cities which were liberated from ISIS group control by the SDF in 2016.
The Assad regime, as well as Turkish dictator Erdogan, have indicated that after the defeat of the ISIS group they would go after the Syrian Kurds.
Assad thinks he can restore full control over Syria after the recent battlefield successes in eastern Syria, and Erdogan wants to dismantle the Kurdish autonomous enclaves in Syria because he claims they will be used for “terrorist” actions against the Turkish army in the near future.
Just this weekend the Turkish autocrat issued a threat to the Syrian Kurds, warning that the Turkish army would enter the most northern Kurdish canton Afrin in Syria to chase “terrorists” — meaning fighters of the Kurdish YPG militia, the most effective fighting force in the battle against ISIS group.
The Trump administration will now have to make a decision about the American presence in Syria after the collapse of ISIS group’s so-called Caliphate — and much will depend on it.
In any event, one conclusion can already be drawn from the events in Syria over the past year: The Iranians are on their way to win the six-year-old war which should have led to an “Arab Spring” and democracy in Syria.
The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website.
This article was first published by The Western Journal.