Russia Backs Syrian Forces Advancing on US-held Border Crossing

Since a pro-Iranian force seized control of the northern section of the Syrian-Iraqi border this week, the Syrian Arab Army and allied Iranian proxy, Hizballah, are advancing steadily on the southern Al-Tanf crossing, which commands the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraq border intersection. They are planning to wrest this strategic location from US and allied forces.
To this end, they are cutting a path to their target by dealing harsh blows to the Syrian Free Army, the rebel force fighting under US, British and Jordanian officers. Their eventual success would finally upend Defense Secretary James Mattis’ plan to control the Syrian-Iraqi border and so defeat Iran’s goal of an open land corridor through Iraq to Syria.
This plan already faces serious setbacks in the northern region at the hands of Iran-backed forces.
The next weekend is critical. Barring a decision in Washington on action for turning the tables, US forces may be forced back step by step, in line with the following negative scenario:
The Syrian-Hizballah force in the south, after reaching its goal, is likely to turn north and link up with the pro-Iranian Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), which this week breached the northern section of the border (see a separate item on this).
Together, they will be in position to grab control of the entire 600km of the Syrian border with Iraq, snatching it away from the grasp of the US forces deployed for this purpose under the Mattis plan.
If this happens, the approximately 3,000 US officers and troops stationed in Syria will face diminishing options and the loss of strategic positions, having been outmaneuvered by a series of lightning Iranian surprise actions.
The Al-Tanf contingent would be pinned down for further military steps in southern Syria. The troops based in the Kurdish cantons in northern Syria will have been squeezed out of even more leeway than the southern contingent by the incursion of the pro-Iranian PMU from Iraq.
Seizing on this perceived US vulnerability, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov sternly warned on Tuesday, May 30: “As you know, there have been not only threats, but a fact of using force in this area of the Al-Tanf crossing between Syria and Iraq. I believe this situation is rather alarming.”
He was warning Washington not to put up a fight against the approaching Syrian army and Hizballah forces, which were steadily closing the distance to the key crossing.
He did not spell out how Russia would react if the Americans ignored his warning, because the Kremlin has yet to calculate whether it is in the Russian interest for Iranian forces to control the entire Syrian-Iraqi border – or just a section. The present standoff gives Moscow an edge for its aspirations in Iraq and a starting-point for the coming contest with Tehran over positions of influence in Baghdad. Since the Syrian army is dependent on Russia, its control of the disputed border would afford Russia a strong bargaining chip.
(A separate article in this issue homes in on the options the Kremlin is developing to avert a clash.)
On Thursday night, June 1, our sources attempted a forward look at the rapidly fluctuating situation on the Syrian border:
The pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) was preparing to head south towards the Al-Tanf crossing, which is embedded in an area controlled by US Special Forces together with British allies and the rebel Syrian Free Army (SFA).
The Syrian government army and its Hizballah ally are now around 15 kilometers from Al Tanf.
They have repelled repeated attacks by the SFA, which sometimes had the use of Switchblade suicide drones, with which US Special Forces are armed.
The contest between Syrian government forces and the rebel Free Syrian Army has reached a standoff. As the former moved forward on the Damascus-Baghdad highway towards the key border crossing, US-led coalition aircraft dropped leaflets warning them to halt their advance.
However, last Saturday, the Syrian military deployed the 800th Battalion of the Republic Guards, its best-armed unit, in the area, demonstrating that it had no intention of abandoning attempts to regain control over the Iraqi border or halting this advance.
If these forces are allowed to prevail unopposed by a firm US counter-offensive, America will slip back in its contest for positions of influence in both Iraq and Syria.

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