While the world attention is riveted to the situation in the Azov Sea and the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, US forces are getting prepared for a large-scale military operation in Syria.
US President Donald Trump announced this past March that the military personnel would be leaving Syria “very soon.” Looks like he has changed his mind since then. The five-ship strong Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group has recently entered the Mediterranean Sea. American, British, French and Israeli aircraft are conducting round the clock flights across the Syria’s airspace under the pretext of holding an exercise. The US-led anti-ISIS coalition aircraft are constantly on patrol. French Dupuy de Lome intelligence gathering vessel is also there, coordinating its activities with the American ships.
The US Army has rushed another 500 Marines to the Al Tanf base straddling the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq. 1,700 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which operates under US command, have also moved to reinforce the garrison. There are over a dozen of US military locations in northeastern Syria, including at least four air strips stretched from Manbij in the vicinity of the Turkish border to Al-Hasakeh, the hub of the pro-American Kurds-dominated SDF forces located in northern Syria.
US soldiers started to patrol the Syrian-Turkish border earlier this month. The move is seen as offering a kind of protection to Kurdish forces from Turkey, probably because their support would be crucial if shooting starts. Russia warned the US twice in September about possible consequences in case Syria starts an operation to free its territory from foreign troops but the warning fell on deaf ears.
According to the Washington Post, the US is preparing to strike Iran in Syria under the pretext of being a target of unprovoked attack.
There are other signs an operation is a possibility. “Russia has been permissive, in consultation with the Israelis, about Israeli strikes against Iranian targets inside Syria. We certainly hope that that permissive approach will continue,” James Jeffrey, Washington’s special representative to Syria said in early November. Back then, the ambassador noted that forcing Iran to leave Syria was an objective of Trump’s economic pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic. With the Islamic State reduced to insignificance and holding no territory to control, it would be a large order to find a legal pretext for a military action but the administration appears to be unfazed. With no threat to national security or strategic interests to justify getting embroiled in a conflict, it is adamant to stay.
The Arab nations, which are candidates for the “Arab NATO” membership, held a joint large-scale military exercise dubbed Arab Shield 1. It ended on Nov.16. The training event was seen as a preparation for a joint military operation. Tamer al-Shahawi, a member of the parliamentary National Defense and Security Committee and a former Egyptian military intelligence officer, said “There is close cooperation between the Gulf states, Egypt and Israel against Tehran. Arab countries are trying to benefit from any possible support against the Iranian influence.”
To increase the effect of sanctions, Iran should be separated from the Mediterranean Sea. The route across Iraq, Syria and Iran-friendly Lebanon should be made inaccessible. If Israel decides to strike what it calls Iranian targets, it would badly need US backing. Another reason to stay in Syria is making sure the nation would be divided in case the reconciliation and restoration process starts to gain momentum. Separating the SDF-controlled areas from the rest of the country is the only way to achieve it. Rebuilding rebel forces and controlling a vast chunk of land is the way to deny Syrian President Assad the international legitimacy he so desperately strives for. The ongoing American presence at Tanf and elsewhere demonstrates Washington has no intention to leave the Middle East as President Trump promised it would do. Neither would it pull out from Syria until a security situation in the region meets its goals.
The concentration of US military in the region is a worrisome sign. This huge force has gathered for something much more serious than just training. With the events in Europe grabbing public attention, the situation creep in Syria is staying under the radar. It shouldn’t be. Something is definitely being cooked up.