The geopolitical war on Syria and its future has entered a new, more complicated phase that will draw a new map of influence across the country. That map will be defined by the presence of military bases belonging to regional and global powers who are attempting to strengthen and stabilize the map of future influence. This is a war of borders, in which each force tries to take control of Syria’s frontiers with Jordan and Iraq to secure its clout in the Syrian desert. The United States finds itself torn between a number of battlefield allies due to the ambiguity of its policies on the conflict in Syria. It has partnered with Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) as an essential ally fighting the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in Iraq, while allying with several Free Syrian Army (FSA) units for the same purpose in Syria. At the same time, it is trying to prevent the Syrian regime and its allies from reaching the Iraqi border and creating a passageway between the PMU in Iraq and regime forces in Syria.
This new phase began when the question of the Syrian desert became the determining factor in the military situation at the start of the year, especially after the signing of a deal on de-escalation zones reached by state sponsors of the Astana talks (Russia, Turkey, and Iran) in the Kazakh capital on May 4. That deal brought about a ceasefire in both northern Syria and in the south, which was more stable following truces between the Syrian regime and opposition forces.
Many actors have tried to control the Syrian desert, which is central to the country’s geography and earns its strategic importance from the fact that it covers some 520,000 square kilometers (323,000 miles)—a third of the country’s total area. The desert stretches the length of the Jordanian and Iraqi borders and contains two-thirds of Syria’s oil reserves.
In mid-March, several opposition factions announced the creation of an operations room dubbed “We saddled the horses,” aimed at ousting ISIS from the Hamad region of Syria’s desert. They included a number of FSA brigades, most importantly the Martyr Ahmed al-Abdu Forces (most of whose fighters come from the Homs and Qalamoun countryside, the Ghouta region and the eastern Damascus countryside), the Assoud Al-Sharqiya brigade (made up of FSA fighters who left Deir Ezzor for Qalamoun after ISIS seized the former in late 2014) and the Two Villages Martyrs’ Brigade (most of whose fighters are from two particular villages in the eastern Homs countryside). They liberated large areas of the desert in eastern Suwaida and Daraa provinces as far as the Damascus countryside from the east and as far as eastern Qalamoun and southern Homs province.
The battle was launched from the al-Tanaf military base at the border crossing of the same name with Jordan and Iraq, in the Hamad desert region in southeastern Homs province, 240 kilometers (150 miles) from Palmyra. The crossing was the last Syrian-Iraqi border post to be wrested from regime control by ISIS in May 2015, and was seized by FSA fighters on March 5, 2016 after they entered Syria from Jordan, where they had been trained.
FSA fighters in the Syrian desert in April reached the borders of the al-Sin airbase, the regime’s largest military airport and air force supply base. That placed them within ten kilometers (6.2 miles) of besieged eastern Qalamoun, where FSA forces have not so far engaged in battle or direct fighting with regime forces, in order to avoid breaking up FSA forces which are concentrating their efforts on the fight against ISIS.
Breaking the siege of eastern Qalamoun would place FSA fighters closer to the eastern Ghouta, the most important stronghold of opposition forces in Damascus and its surroundings. It would raise the possibility of breaking the siege on the area and creating a supply corridor from Jordan all the way into the Syrian capital. That prospect prompted the Syrian regime to start a vast operation in May aimed at pushing FSA forces out of the Suwaida and eastern Qalamoun areas. More importantly, it wanted to cut off the FSA’s path towards the southern Deir Ezzor countryside and the Abu Kamal desert region and to deliver regime forces as far as the Iraqi border. Regime forces supported by Iraqi and Lebanese militias have advanced on the Iraqi border, reaching it in mid-June, coinciding with the arrival of the PMU to the western al-Ba’aj district of Nineveh province on the other side of the border.
It is clear that the main aim of advancing on the Iraqi border is not to take on or destroy a much-weakened ISIS, but rather to guarantee a land route from Syria to Iraq to strengthen Iran’s clout in the three countries (Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), giving it a path to the Mediterranean coast.
Another notable development was a series of American airstrikes on convoys of Syrian regime forces and pro-regime Iranian militias, three times in less than a month. American jets bombed regime and militia forces on May 18 and June 6. The United States is clearly opposed to any geographical contiguity between Syria and Iraq through the southern Syrian desert, even though it has been silent over the direct contact between the Syrian Democratic Forces in Hasaka and the PMU in Iraq to the north. The United States has not yet decided to attack Iran and destroy its influence in Syria, but is keeping alive channels of communication with Tehran through third parties such as the Iraqi government and the PMU. It is clear that a territorial corridor from Tehran through Baghdad to Aleppo and Damascus has become a de facto reality, but it is under American surveillance and control, and the US still sees both the PMU and the SDF as allies. It is not against them communicating and cooperating on the ground, which may benefit Washington in the near future, as well as offering it a point of leverage with Turkey. America’s policy on Syria is unclear; it differs from the north of the country to the south to take into account Turkish and Iranian sensitivities in the north and the security of Israel and Jordan to the south.
The Syrian war is no longer limited to military clashes but also involves negotiations, including talks between the US, Russia, and other parties in Jordan to discuss the future of a safe zone in southern Syria. Without an American-Russian accord on the south and more specifically the Syrian desert, tough battles in the area can be expected. The FSA is gathering its forces in eastern Qalamoun and the south, as well as in the eastern desert, to try and secure the largest possible area for a safe zone in the south, in the event a deal is signed to set up such a space. If such a deal cannot be reached, FSA forces will be ready to start fighting regime and ISIS forces once again.
Abdullah Almousa is a researcher and military analyst with four years of experience. Currently, he works as a manager for Hooz. He previously worked as a field officer for international organizations in Syria. Follow him on twitter @Abu_Orwa91