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US arming Syria rebels with sophisticated arms

Arrival of HIMARS, with its 300-km range missiles, could tip the scales against Iran-backed forces in the area

Gulf News

Damascus: While international media remains highly focused on what seems to be the last major battle for Daesh in their self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, security analysts and intelligence services around the world are actively following developments in the Syrian south.

For the first time since outbreak of the multi-faceted conflict more than six years ago, the US has moved its High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) from Jordan into Syria, placing it at the disposal of Syrian rebels near Tanf, a once-sleepy town on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border that has become a hub for training Syrian ground forces.

Formerly known as the New Syrian Army, Maghaweer Al Thawra troops are presently engaged in a battle for control of Tanf against a broad coalition of troops that includes units from the Syrian and Iraqi Army, Hezbollah forces, and the all-Shiite Popular Mobilisation Units, all backed by Russia — a chief ally of the Syrian government.

The arrival of HIMARS, with its 300-km range missiles, is a major asset for Maghaweer Al Thawra, who were previously denied access to such sophisticated technology. Such a development could tip the scales against pro-Syrian forces battling for control of Tanf. These forces have set up a makeshift military base just 70 kilometres north of the key town on June 10.

Glen Howard, the president of Jamestown Foundation, a reputed Washington-based research institute, believes that the Iran-backed offensive will fail.

Speaking to Gulf News, he said: “The Pentagon is not going to give in on the zone at Tanf and while we continue talks with the Russians on de-escalation, the status quo there will remain the same.”

Howard added: “I predict an all-out proxy war in Syria between the US and Iran where the Kurds would reap the benefits and the Syrian government watching from the sidelines.”

If left unchecked, however, this Iran-backed contingent has the power to cut off all ground access for coalition forces to the Syrian north, preventing US-backed troops from advancing on Albu Kamal, the only border city still occupied by Daesh. Damascus and Moscow hope to re-take what remains of the Syrian-Iraqi border, with its focal point being in Tanf, in order to keep the Damascus-Baghdad Highway open and to continue the flow of weapons to Hezbollah from Iran to Beirut, via Iraq and Syria.

At best, they would be able to take only a fraction of the 599-km border, part of which is in the hands of Daesh while the lion’s share is controlled by the mainly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed quasi-army presently leading the assault on Raqqa.

The only Syrian rebels with access to HIMARS in the past were the SDF, who used them in the battles of Manbij, 30 kilometres west of the Euphrates, last August.

So far, the US has hit at Iran-backed forces three times over the past month, while downing a combat drone on June 8 believed to be operated by Tehran.

But the Iran-backed forces have been making gains despite warnings by the Coalition Forces to stop its advance.

In a statement it said that “appropriate measures” would be taken to protect coalition troops and their Syrian allies, noting: “the potential for conflict is escalating.”

That, of course, becomes increasingly possible when sophisticated weapons reach the hands of Maghaweer Al Thawra near Tanf, raising the risk of a direct confrontation.

“We are truly in a new period when it comes to American strategy and predicting American strategy in the Middle East,” said Nicholas Noe, co-founder of the Beirut-based and a former campaign aide for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 elections.

“The Trump administration has apparently delegated far more in the way of tactical decisions to ‘the generals’. But these tactical choices can quickly add up to strategic decisions, while at the same time being undercut, then supported, then downplayed by multiple and conflicting decision-makers in Washington, not least of whom is the president himself. This is the new normal. What it means, practically, is that it is exceedingly hard to say what American power is aiming for, what the possible intended and unintended consequences may be of any action or set of actions and also what our allies may ultimately do.”

Noe added: “Trump himself has demonstrated that he has neither the patience nor the discipline to see such an approach through as the chief executive; something that bodes quite badly for ending the war in Syria where there are so many actors who can disrupt and undermine any peace process, even one deftly managed by great powers.”