Many American experts and fans of the President Donald Trump had counted on his administration following through on his campaign pledges by curtailing Iran’s deepening military grip on Syria and blocking its drive for a land corridor via Iraq to Damascus and the Mediterranean.
Trump was expected to depart radically from Obama’s policies, which gave Tehran the gift of Iraq, and on no account let Iran hijack Syria as well.
That is why many informed Americans were bowled over when they heard the US Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition last week: He said: “If they [Assad regime] want to fight ISIS in Abu Kamal and they have the capacity to do so, then that would be welcomed. We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business, We are in the killing-ISIS business… and if the Syrian regime wants to do that and they are going to put forth a concerted effort and show that they are doing just that in Abu Kamal or Deir ez-Zour or elsewhere, that means that we don’t have to do that in those places.”
Many people were taken aback by this statement, because it offered an American license for the Syrians – and hence the Iranians – to grab Abu Kamal on the Syrian-Iraqi border. This would be tantamount to a permit for Iran to take over 70 percent of that strategic border and so gain its coveted control of cross-border traffic.
The CENTCOM statement had people in Washington wondering who was formulating Syrian policy: the White House or US Central Command HQ in Tampa? Commander-in-Chief Trump or Gen. Joseph Votel, head of CENTCOM?
Frederic C. Hof, a noted American expert on Syria, commented: “The Trump administration correctly views Iranian domination of Syria – undertaken to secure and reinforce Hizballah in Lebanon – as contrary to American interests. Yet Tampa articulates a policy that seems to be fully at peace with Iran and Assad dominating eastern Syria… If the CENTCOM approach is good enough for Washington, it will be good news indeed in Tehran and Damascus, to say nothing of Moscow.”
On Monday, June 26, the White House warned Bashar Assad against again attacking his people with chemical weapons. According to DEBKA Weekly’s sources, that warning was put out on the initiative of concerned quarters in the National Security Council who were desperate to recall President Trump’s attention to the situation in Syria before it slipped out of control.
However, Defense Secretary James Mattis stepped in at that point: Speaking to reporters aboard a flight to Brussels on Wednesday June 28, he put a stop to the speculation about Washington’s next step by announcing: “They didn’t do it,” implying that the Assad regime had backed away from its alleged attack plan, deterred by Washington’s warning.
There is no evidence that this happened. Analysis of the broader statement delivered on the same flight by the Defense Secretary, indicates that if anyone backed down, it was not Assad, the Russians or the Iranians, but the Americans. This episode was used by Mattis and CENTCOM chiefs to roll out their plans for Syria. He made the following points:
- Future US military operations against the Islamic State in the Euphrates River Valley will take “more precision” to stave off any incidents between the “disparate forces” operating there.
- “You have to play this thing very carefully. The closer we get, the more complex it gets.”
- To avoid the seemingly inevitable collision between US-backed fighters and pro-Syrian government forces, including their respective air support, the Euphrates Valley would be carved up into “deconfliction” areas. The zones would be marked by easily identifiable parts of the river valley, such as towns and geographic features on the map.
- With so many forces operating in the same area, deconfliction efforts would have to be worked out differently than in the past, though exactly how is unclear.
(Our comment: Omitting to determine who would work this out or set a time frame leaves Iran a free hand to carry on with its operations for overrunning the Syrian-Iraqi border undisturbed so long as they don’t harm the US forces stationed in the vicinity.)
- A number of communication lines are in use between Russian and US forces, including one that runs into the US-led coalition’s main operations center in Qatar and another that connects Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of US forces in Iraq and Syria, to his Russian counterpart in Syria.
- Those deconfliction lines have never gone down through all the past contentious months.
- Those channels have helped US forces to stay “focused” on fighting the Islamic State and have kept the US from a widening role in the six-year old conflict that has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced millions of Syrians.
- In conclusion, Mattis emphasizes: “We just refuse to get drawn into the Syrian civil war. We try to end that through diplomatic means.”
Do we hear echoes of Obama in the Mattis outline of Syrian policy? It is universally acknowledged that the former administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis ended in catastrophe. Will Trump leave the Syrian crisis in the hands of Mattis and risk reaching the same disastrous dead end?