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The scramble for control of Syrian-Iraqi border

By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline | June 4, 2017

The remark by the Syrian Kurdish militia spokesman Saturday that their final assault on the ISIS “capital” city of Raqqa will start “in the coming few days” highlights the keen struggle for control of eastern Syria bordering Iraq that is playing out. The ISIS is staring at defeat and the issue now is what follows thereafter.

The big question is whether Syria survives or will get balkanized. The Russian President Vladimir Putin flagged this stark reality when he said on Friday,

  • Does the possible dismemberment of Syria arouse concern? It certainly does. We are establishing de-escalation zones now and we are afraid that these de-escalation zones may turn into a blueprint for future borders. Russia hopes these safety zones would serve to interact with the Assad government, to start at least some kind of a dialogue, some interaction, as this would help future political cooperation in order to restore Syria’s control over its entire territory and preserve the country’s territorial integrity.

Of course, there is the danger that Syrian war may become a “frozen conflict”. The key, therefore, lies in gaining control of Iraq’s border crossings with Syria across vast desert lands through which Iran renders vital help to the government forces and the Hezbollah and the Shi’ite fighters battling the insurgents and the ISIS.

As the map, here, shows, the Syrian-Iraqi border regions are largely under the control of either US-supported Kurdish and other insurgent fighters or the ISIS and other extremist groups. The Syrian government aspires to regain control of those regions.

Essentially, the struggle is for control of the border crossings that are depicted in the map. Clearly, the border crossing way up in the north is under the control of the Kurdish militia and it remains to be seen (a) whether the US would allow the Kurds to reach an understanding with Damascus; (b) whether Turkey will allow Kurds to consolidate their grip in that area; (c) whether the over-stretched government forces will take on the Kurds or, alternatively, will regard it to be tactically prudent to avoid a shooting match at this point and instead keep options open to eventually negotiate a power-sharing deal with the Kurds.

Unlike the northern front, the central and southern fronts are hotly contested. As the map shows, there is one border crossing in the central front at Al-Bukamal (where the Euphrates flows into Iraq) and another key border crossing is at Al-Tanf in the southern front.

In the central front, Bashar Al-Assad’s forces are in Palmyra and are making their way toward Deir Ezzor where a Syrian garrison is desperately holding out against a siege by the jihadi groups. The US appears to be encouraging the ISIS fighters in Raqqa to evacuate toward Deir Ezzor. But Russian cruise missile strikes recently targeted these ISIS convoys. (Sputnik) The US apparently prefers that somehow Assad’s forces must be prevented from reaching Deir Ezzor, because from there they could take control of the highway leading to the border crossing at Al-Bukamal. (See the map.)

Similarly in the southern front, the US is impeding the advance of the government forces to al-Tanf (which is connected to Damascus), another border crossing into Iraq. The US would hope that the rebel groups in al-Tanf will also seize control of the Al-Bukamal border crossing up north so that US proxies will be in control of the entire Syrian-Iraqi border as well as the southern Syrian region straddling the border with Jordan and the Golan Heights. The game here is essentially about cutting off Iran’s access to Lebanon (Hezbollah).

Why is it so important for the US to prevent Assad’s forces from taking control of the Al-Bukamal and Al-Tanf border crossings? Simply put, the spectre of a Damascus-Baghdad-Tehran land route reopening is what is haunting the US (and Israel), because such a solid land route will have a multiplier effect on Iran’s capacity to influence the future developments in Syria (and Lebanon).

The US has not directly jumped into the fray so far to take control of the Syria-Iraq border. It maintains the pretence that it is narrowly focused on fighting the ISIS. However, when it seemed that Assad’s forces were lunging toward Al-Tanf recently (May 18), the US forced them to turn back by launching an air strike.

The overall balance of forces does favour the Syrian government and in a conceivable future it should take control of Deir Ezzor, Al-Bukamal and Al-Tanf. Thus, the US will have to find a way to work around Assad (and Iran) than work against him. The other option will be to bear the heavy costs of a long-term, open-ended strategy of military intervention and occupation, which doesn’t figure in President Donald Trump’s foreign-policy calculus. The US’s best bet will be to seek some sort of understanding with Russia based on the premise that Moscow may not be fully sharing the agenda of Assad and his Iranian ally. But then, Moscow has no reason to bet on any other horse than the one it has been so far, which also happens to be a winning horse.

June 4, 2017 - Posted by | Illegal Occupation, Wars for Israel | , , ,

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