Pentagon, Arab States Push Back Against Iran in Syria While U.S. Drags Heels on Sanctions

On Thursday, the Washington Post published an article detailing the escalating tensions between the United States and supporters of the Assad regime in Syria, as ISIL power in the region continues to diminish. The article reiterates that ISIL’s de facto capital of Raqqa seems to be on the verge of falling, and that this development will send the Syrian Civil War into a new phase, with US-backed and Iran-backed forces competing directly for strategically significant swaths of reclaimed territory.

The article also suggests that the proxy war may even take on a more direct character as both Iran and the US show themselves to be increasingly willing to involve themselves directly in the conflict. In fact, Iran-watchers have insisted that the Islamic Republic’s direct participation in the conflict is long-standing.

It is well-established that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has been recruiting for militant proxies fighting in defense of the Assad regime, and also that it has been providing operation support to loyalist forces. What’s more, accounts have accumulated of casualties in Syria from among the IRGC itself, and a report published by The Guardian on Tuesday noted that IRGC fighters had been spotted in the immediate vicinity of an outpost for US-backed forces, for which the US has been providing air support.

Coalitions like the National Council of Resistance of Iran have drawn upon their intelligence resources in the Middle East to conclude that the IRGC presence has always been significantly greater than Iran or its allies would publicly admit. And whatever the case may be, the latest reports of casualties and close-encounters certainly indicate that that presence is growing. And this growth coincides with Tehran’s decision to launch a ballistic missile strike on eastern Syria on Sunday. Although the strike ostensibly targeted ISIL, one IRGC general told Iranian state media that the United States and Saudi Arabia were the main intended recipients of the underlying message.

This lends both credence and context to the Washington Post’s conclusion in its Thursday article that the “clash” expected to follow the fall of Raqqa has “to some extent… already begun.” The article explains that some Iranian and Iran-backed forces have actually started to disengage from their fight with ISIL in order to take up positions that will help them link up with similar proxy forces across the border in Iraq and make a coordinated push to capture land along a route linking Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus, which might otherwise fall into the hands of US-backed forces.

The article goes on to quote an anonymous White House official as saying that Iran appears to be positioning itself to block US influence while asserting its own, and that this would threaten a range of Western interests in the region, including the campaign against ISIL and the effort to secure a political solution to the Syrian Civil War. Tehran has been blamed for stymying those efforts on a number of occasions, because of the Islamic Republic’s preoccupation with preserving the Assad dictatorship over the long term and thus destroying all opposition movements that might enjoy international legitimacy.

In light of these threats, the US has been pushing back against the efforts of the Islamic Republic and its allies, thereby contributing to the appearance of “clashes” that precede the final defeat of ISIL. The above-mentioned Guardian report primarily focused upon the American shoot-down of an Iran-made drone that was apparently being operated by the Syrian military and threatening anti-ISIL forces that were being trained by the US near the al-Tanf outpost.

The report noted that a similar shoot-down had occurred on June 8, also involving an Iran-made drone. Additionally, a manned Syrian bomber was shot down on June 18, coincidentally the same day as the Iranian ballistic missile strike in eastern Syria. In this way, the US is stepping up clashes directly with the Assad regime and indirectly with its Iranian backers. The Washington Post points out that these decisions are being made by the Pentagon, although it appears as though they have at least tentative support from much of the US government.

Certainly, the Donald Trump White House has pushed a more assertive approach to dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as breaking with previous wariness about getting involved in the Syrian Civil War, as when Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airstrip following a chemical attack carried out by the Assad regime.

On the other hand, the Trump administration is reportedly standing in the way of a new sanctions bill known as the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act, which would, among other things, extend all existing anti-terror sanctions to the IRGC. Although this would very much play into the administration’s plans to confront Iran in general and against the backdrop of the Syrian Civil War, the bill also includes sanctions against Russia, thus undermining campaign-trail promises to pursue better relations between Washington and Moscow.

Although the sanctions bill passed by a near-unanimous margin of 98 to 2 in the Senate, House Republicans have stalled the bill on the basis of procedural issues, which some Democrats insist have been resolved in a matter of minutes with other bills. Reuters reported on Thursday that although House Speaker Paul Ryan insisted he would like to see quick action on the bill, it is possible that the Republicans could stall it for months if they decide to require approval and markups by a series of House committees.

Interestingly, though, the congressional roadblock being erected over the Russia issue does not appear likely to have much effect on Moscow’s reaction to the actions being undertaken by the Pentagon to push back against Iran and the Assad regime, both Russian allies. In fact, on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Russia was demanding an explanation for the American shoot-down of the Syrian warplane, and also that it had ceased operation of a hotline between the Russian and American militaries, which had been intended to prevent mid-air collisions.

This goes to show that there are broader implications for the rising tide of clashes being observed between forces directly supported by Iran and by the US. Indeed, the escalation of those tensions can easily be viewed as an indicator of the overall escalation and the creation of more stark dividing lines between anti-Iran and pro-Iran alliances. The anti-Iran faction became more pronounced in the wake of President Trump’s attendance of an Arab summit in Riyadh in late May. Since then, Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of responsibility for a pair of ISIL terrorist attacks in Tehran, and Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of attempting to deploy IRGC operatives to carry out a terrorist attack on an offshore oil platform.

On Thursday, Al Jazeera reported that it was sticking to its denial of that Saudi account, saying instead that the three individuals captured by the Saudis were not members of the IRGC but only fishermen who had gotten lost. The report noted that the Iranians were demanding the immediate release of the three captives, as well as reparations for another individual who was killed, and punishment for the individuals responsible. The Saudis, on the other hand, have said that the captured vessel was full of explosives and that two other boats escaped during the seizure.

As these and other tensions develop between Iran and its traditional adversaries, the Islamic Republic is striving to shore up support from among established allies and regional powers that have traditionally been caught in between the longstanding political divide. As one example of this trend, Fox News reported that Iran had announced plans to move toward 35 billion cubic meters of daily gas exportation to Iraq, after having reportedly started out on Wednesday with seven billion cubic meters. In another example, Agence-France Presse reported that Iran was apparently sending 1,100 tonnes of food to Qatar daily, following the severance of diplomatic ties and trade routes from fellow Arab countries over supposed Qatari dissent against increased Arab pressure on Tehran.

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