A Russian-Iranian Force Steals up on Syrian Border Triangle for Trump’s Trip
As President Donald Trump cut through the Middle East – from May 20 in Riyadh to Jerusalem on May 22 and Brussels, May 25 – 3,000 fighters, including Russian troops, inched forward to snatch the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border triangle crossing held by US-led Western troops
Four days earlier, Russian paratroops of the Syria-based 31st Brigade, pro-Iranian foreign Shiite militias, including Hizballah, and the Syrian Arab Army, were 50km from the key Al-Tanf border crossing to Iraq. By Thursday, they had narrowed the gap to 10km and, in some sectors, to seven.
This steadily unfolding contest between a Russian-backed force and US and Western elite troops posted at the crossing was not mentioned in any of the speeches Trump delivered in Saudi Arabia or Israel. But, before he took off for the Middle East, as commander-in-chief, he devolved full authority on Secretary of Defense James Mattis to order a US air strike against this force, without checking back with him.
Accordingly on May 18, a US air force raid destroyed a number of tanks, armored cars and trucks carrying Syrian army and Hizballah troops towards the Syrian-Iraqi border.
But this did not stop the advance. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards al Qods chief, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, ordered it to continue regardless, in pursuance of his own instructions from Iran’s leaders.
They are determined to seize control of the Syrian-Iraqi border – come what may – so that pro-Iranian units and supplies are free to move to and fro between the two countries.
DEBKA weekly’s military sources and intelligence sources have emphasized in its recent issues the Iranian leadership’s resolve to keep that border open at all costs, as a matter of high strategic national interest – even at the risk of a direct military clash with US troops in the region.
This resolve found support from Moscow when, after the US strike, the Russians pitched in with special forces troops to augment the Syrian-Iranian push onward. And not just troops, but also intelligence gathered by Russian satellites, even though this intervention clearly escalated the potential for the Russians to clash with the US elite force and the British, German and Norwegian allies posted at the border crossing.
President Trump had harsh words for Iran in his speeches in Saudi Arabia and Israel. He demanded that Tehran dismantle the militias operating in Iraq and Syria and stop funding the terrorist groups spreading terror and chaos across the region.
In his parting speech at the Israel Museum Tuesday, May 22, the president offered a pledge that Iran would not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon.
But how does all this enthusiastically-hailed rhetoric play out on the ground?
The Islamic Republic of Iran has no intention of dismantling those militias: They are a vital component of its ideology – not just as the fighting arm of Iran’s expansion through the Middle East, but as the executors of its fundamental revolutionary dictate to “export” the Shiite doctrine across the world.
Therefore, in the past week, Middle East volatility was manifested on two parallel levels:
Solemn pledges by President Trump, Saudi King Salman and Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to proactively curb Iran – on one level; and, on the other, the steady advance of a Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah force without apparently meeting effective resistance.