Tensions are rising in north-western Syria. The United States struck a dozen bunkers storing weapons and ammunition in the enclave of Dier ez-Zor, controlled by Syrian forces and occupied by Iranian-backed militias, early on Wednesday. US Army Central Command (USCENTCOM) spokesman Colonel Joe Buccino reported the bombing of the depots, calling the attack "a deliberate action intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimise the risk of casualties".
The number of dead or wounded has not been released. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the offensive targeted the Ayyash camp, where members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a Shia militia made up of Afghan fighters who are trained, funded and equipped by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite branch of the Iranian armed forces known as the Pasdaran, are training.
The Central Command spokesman said the offensive was carried out on the orders of President Joe Biden and in retaliation for continued attacks on US troops deployed in the country. The latest attack, which took place on 15 August and was not reported to have claimed any lives, targeted the At Tanf military base, located in a strategic enclave near the border with Iraq, where Iran and its related militias feed their allies with smuggled weapons.
Damascus has not commented on the offensive; nor has Tehran. Attacks on the oil-rich area are common, though they are usually carried out by Israeli aircraft. The myriad armed groups operating in northern Syria, heavily backed by Iran and hosted by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's forces, are engaged in a coordinated effort to destabilise Israel.
The Iranian authority has displaced al-Assad's control in northern Syria. Through the Revolutionary Guards, Tehran is taking advantage of the weakness of the Syrian state, shattered after more than a decade of war, to recruit locals to bolster its militias. Tehran offers what Damascus cannot, something it would profit from once the fratricidal conflict is over to amass influence in its regional neighbour.
The US offensive on Syrian soil, directed against targets linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, has come in the midst of negotiations to reissue the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear deal that limited Persian nuclear ambitions in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. The deal, which hung in the balance just a few weeks ago, is now more feasible than ever, but critical details remain to be finalised.
One of the most contentious points of the nuclear negotiations in Vienna has been the designation of Pasdaran as a foreign terrorist organisation, a label issued by the State Department that Tehran wanted to get rid of at all costs. This label brings with it the imposition of sanctions against companies and entities linked to the army corps, of which there are dozens. For Washington it is a "red line", not least because it is a term that is not included in the content of the nuclear agreement signed in 2015.
US troops stormed the Syrian chessboard in 2015, in the midst of the civil war, to support the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their fight against the Daesh insurgency. Today, 900 troops remain deployed in Syria, scattered across the oil fields and concentrated in the garrison of At Tanf, where they fight in coordination with the SDF against the remnants of Islamic State.
Al-Assad, however, considers the US military presence illegal and demands its immediate withdrawal. As a result, Iranian-friendly Syrian militias have intensified their attacks over the past three years against US targets. Since the beginning of the year, at least 30 attacks on their bases of operations have been counted, according to the State Department. The intention of the armed groups is to accelerate Washington's withdrawal from the region, announced by the Obama administration and materialised by Trump.
Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra