Syrian-Hizballah Push for SE Syria Slowed at Daraa by US-backed SDF
The Syrian war has shifted its spotlight to two new southeastern fronts. On one, the US-led coalition is contested by Iran and Syria for control of the 600km long Syrian Iraqi border – a contest still unresolved. On the second, the Syrian-Hizballah offensive for domination of southern Syria was checked by a US-backed force as it began to pose a serious challenge to Israel and Jordan.
(A third front pitting Russia against the US is outlined in the lead article of this issue.)
This week saw six major, groundbreaking developments on the two fronts:
1. On Saturday, June 16, a combined Iraqi army and Arab tribal force from Anbar province snatched from ISIS the Al Waleed crossing on the Iraqi-Syrian border. The “Iraqi army” consisted in fact of the Iranian-sponsored Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).
The Al Waleed operation was commanded by Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani. He was spending time in southern Iraq on the pretext of a Ramadan pilgrimage to the Imam Hossein shrine. This placed him in position for taking charge of the operation together with the PMU chief Abu Mahdi al Muhandis.
This success was as good as a game changer for Iran in the Syrian war. It not only opened a direct land route from Tehran to Syria and the Mediterranean coast via Iraq, but also made available the only highway from Baghdad to Damascus. Iran could finally transport heavy armaments including tanks to the Assad regime.
The US and Jordanian special forces were furthermore isolated in their positions in southeastern Syria.
This week, they brought in from Jordan American High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) which have a range of 300km. But so far this weapon was not used against the advancing Iranian-directed forces hemming them in.
2. On Sunday, June 18, the Revolutionary Guards announced they had fired seven medium-range ballistic missiles into Syria from the western Iranian Kermanshah province, in reprisal for the ISIS terrorist attack on two national sites in Tehran on June 7, which left seven people dead.
They claimed direct hits to Islamic State centers at Deir ez-Zour in southeastern Syria. Military sources report that most of them missed target and went astray. (|See a separate article on this.)
That was the first time Tehran had launched a missile attack of this kind in the seven-year Syrian war and it was taken seriously in Washington, Jerusalem and Amman as a warning from Tehran to keep their hands off the warfare in southern Syria and on no account impede the advancing Iranian, Syrian and Hizballah forces. The missiles carried the message that Tehran would not hesitate to send another round of missiles against US military positions in Syria as well as Israeli and Jordanian military targets.
Tehran is well aware of the high sensitivity of Israel and Jordan to any prospective surface missile hits.
It turned out as the week unfolded that this warning went unheeded.
And indeed, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded: "I have one message to Iran: Do not threaten Israel. The army and our security forces are constantly monitoring the activity of Iran in the region,"
3. A few hours before the Iranian missile struck ISIS, two US F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jets downed a Syrian SU-22 fighter bomber east of Raqqa while it was attacking the US-backed SDF.
Before downing the plane, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) contacted the Russian command in Syria by telephone via a “de-confliction line” established between them to de-escalate tricky situations before they veered out of control.
CENTCOM emphasized that “the US does not seek a fight with the Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces” but will “not hesitate to defend itself or its partnered forces from any threat.”
4. On Monday, June 19, the Americans followed through on this statement by downing an armed Iranian-made Syrian army drone, a direct assault on Syrian and pro-Iranian forces that were threatening US partners.
5. Israeli special operations forces meanwhile continue their covert operations in southern Syria and areas touching on its Golan border to cleanse them of hostile forces.
On Wednesday June 7, a single unidentified missile fired from the air struck a building in the Syrian village of al-Shagara inside the Syrian-Israeli-Jordanian border triangle, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee. It wiped out the entire high command of a group called Khaled Ibn al-Waleed, the operational arm of the Islamic State on the Golan. All 16 officers of the command were caught at a meeting and killed, including the former high-ranking Iraqi officers whose ISIS titles were Gen. Abu Muhammed al-Makdessi, the group’s commander, and Gen. Abu Udai al-Homsi, its operations chief.
On Saturday, June 17, an Iranian officer was targeted by an unidentified party. Majd e-Din Khalil Khaymoud was killed in an ambush at the village of Khan Arnabah. He was in command of the “Southern Shield Brigade,” which the Revolutionary Guards deployed in the Hermon region ready for cross-border attacks deep inside Israel.
6. On Tuesday, June 19, when the Iranian command, headed by Gen. Soleimani, saw that US air strikes were slowing the Syrian-Hizballah progress through southeastern Syria, a decision was taken to break through to Daraa, the embattled southern town, by dropping Syrian paratroops for the first time behind the lines of the rebel Syrian Democratic Forces. The US-trained and armed SDF had been holding out against more than two weeks of ferocious battering. The Iranian command had hoped that the new tactic would take them by surprise and the town would finally fall.
But the rebels held firm.
And by Wednesday, June 20, mounting casualties had forced the elite Syrian and Hizballah units to halt their offensive for the key town as well as their onward march for control of southern Syria. This was a watershed event in the struggle for this key borderland region.