Iraqi forces targeting ISIS in southern Syria were recently targeted by a U.S. airstrike, leaving some pondering the possibility the U.S. is protecting the group to secure an American military presence in the region.
ABU KAMAL, SYRIA – Last Sunday, June 17, local Syrian media reported that the U.S. coalition had bombed Syrian Arab Army installments in the town of Al-Hariri. The bombing killed dozens of Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers as well as 22 fighters from the Iraqi paramilitary group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Sha’abi, PMF), which has been collaborating with the Syrian government to wipe out Daesh (ISIS) fighters around the Syrian-Iraqi border city of Abu Kamal in the Deir Ez-Zor governorate.
Soon after the strike, however, the U.S. denied responsibility for the attack, with Pentagon spokesman Adrian Rankine-Galloway asserting that the bombing was “not a U.S. or coalition strike,” while an anonymous U.S. official told Agence France-Presse, and later CNN, that Israel had been responsible for the strike. Israel declined to comment on the allegations.
While Israel was widely blamed for the strike following those media reports, new evidence gathered by Iraq’s PMF from the site of the strike has shown that the attack may, in fact, have been carried out by the U.S. coalition. After collecting fragments of missiles used in the strike, the group – which is sponsored by the government of Iraq – determined that the U.S. had carried out the strike by firing missiles at the SAA/PMF position from a location near the Iraqi border city of Al-Qa’im. U.S. culpability for the attack would mean that it is the second time in less than a month that the U.S.-led coalition has attacked pro-government fighters targeting Daesh within Syria.
The head of PMF’s military operations, Abu Munather Al-Husseini, asserted that the U.S.-led Joint Operations Command (JOC), also known as the U.S. coalition, had been informed by the Iraqi military of the PMF’s location prior to the strike. Thus, if the PMF’s analysis of the strike site is indeed correct, the U.S. coalition had intentionally and deliberately targeted the PMF as well as the SAA in conducting the strike.
As MintPress reported soon after the attack, the strike was launched from U.S.-occupied territory, meaning that either the U.S.-led coalition conducted the attack but publicly denied responsibility, or that Israel was responsible for the attack and “independently” launched the strike from Syrian territory occupied by the U.S.-led coalition. The PMF’s analysis of the strike site has now determined that the former was most likely the case, given that the group had waited to point the finger at Israel or the U.S. until concluding its analysis of the attack.
PMF’s leadership lambasted the U.S. for allegedly carrying out the strike and targeting its forces, while also urging retaliation against the U.S. for repeatedly interfering in its efforts to wipe out Daesh in Syria as well as Iraq. Indeed, just days before the strike, the PMF had successfully launched a major offensive against Daesh in the area of Syria where the strike later took place.
In a statement released on Sunday, PMF Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis warned of retaliation against the U.S., stating:
We tell the Americans that we as the Hashd [PMF], including all of its formations, follow the Iraqi government. We will not remain silent about this attack. […] Remaining silent on this incident, saying that ‘that position is outside the Iraqi territory, hence we have nothing to do with it’ is forfeiting the blood of our martyrs.
U.S. chess game with ISIS as pawn
U.S.’ actions near Abu Kamal betray the fact that it is seeking to expand the portion of Syria’s Northeast that it currently occupies, an area that accounts for 30 percent of Syria’s total land mass and includes the majority of the country’s oil, gas, fresh water, and agricultural resources. The U.S. has long had its eye on the strategic border town, as it is the main border crossing between Syria and Iraq. More importantly, it is the only border crossing that connects Syrian government-controlled territory with Iran, through Iraq.
A major U.S. goal in its occupation of Syria has been disrupting this land bridge, but continued Syrian government control of Abu Kamal makes this impossible. Were the U.S. to take control of Abu Kamal, it would control Syria’s most important border crossings, as it already controls the Syrian-Jordanian border crossing at al-Tanf.
The U.S.’ interest in Abu Kamal and its recent targeting of forces fighting Daesh in the area suggest that a Daesh takeover of the city is likely to be used by the U.S. as the pretext for the expansion of Syrian territory, a tactic the U.S. has used before in Syria. The possibilities of a Daesh takeover of Abu Kamal have been openly noted by influential U.S. think tanks, such as the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which recently mused that Daesh control over Abu Kamal would serve U.S. interests in the region, as it would allow the U.S.-occupied zone of Syria to “spread by osmosis.”
For that reason, the recent reappearance of Daesh (ISIS) in Abu Kamal is significant. Indeed, Daesh launched its largest military offensive in several months in Abu Kamal earlier this month, with 10 suicide bombers helping clear the way for Daesh militants to take over parts of the city. The offensive killed 25 Syrian soldiers and allied fighters, according to monitors. Daesh attacked from the U.S.-occupied zone of Syria, despite the fact that the U.S. has long justified its illegal presence in Syria by claiming that it is fighting the terror group. However, Russian and Syrian military sources have asserted that the U.S. is not fighting Daesh in the region, but protecting them.
The strikes on pro-Syrian government forces around Abu Kamal also come amid reports that indicate the U.S. is fortifying its military positions within occupied Syria by constructing military bases along the Euphrates river in proximity to Syrian military installments throughout the Deir Ez-Zor region and by transferring “a large volume of arms and equipment, including missiles, military vehicles and bridge equipment” to those same areas in recent weeks.
Given that the U.S. may soon lose its influence in Southern Syria and its control over the al-Tanf border crossing, thanks to the Syrian government’s offensive in the Dara’a governorate, it is likely the U.S. will continue to fortify its position in the country’s Northeast and expand its efforts to dislodge the SAA and its allies from Abu Kamal in a last-ditch attempt to prolong the conflict and succeed in its efforts to occupy and partition Syria.