The May 18 U.S. airstrike on pro-regime forces heading for Syria's southern al-Tanf border crossing marks a turning point in the war. The situation on the Iraq-Jordan-Syria frontier now poses the threat of direct confrontation between American and Syrian forces, and perhaps other actors as well.
Al-Tanf has been occupied by U.S. Special Forces and American-backed rebels since March 2016. Following last week's strike, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis quickly noted that the United States does not seek to increase its role in the war, though it would defend its troops if they are threatened. Meanwhile, Bashar al-Assad and his allies believe that Washington wants to establish a more permanent presence in eastern Syria in order to strengthen its local allies, put pressure on Damascus, and prevent the regime from returning to the Euphrates Valley.
This concern reflects the broader regional contest that the war has become, with the regime and its allies racing to establish an east-west "Shiite axis" from Iran to Lebanon and the United States seemingly looking to cement a north-south "Sunni axis" from the Gulf states and Jordan to Turkey. The situation in Syria's central and southern desert region (the Badia) will play an important role in shaping these dynamics.
Syria's southern border has become a major flashpoint -- from al-Tanf to Sinjar, Iraq, the area is now being contested by various belligerents on behalf of their regional sponsors. The post-IS battlefield is being prepared, and the formerly "useless" eastern part of Syria is taking on much greater strategic importance in the competition between the east-west "Shiite axis" and north-south "Sunni axis." It is through this lens that one should view the regime's recent offensive between Palmyra and the Jordanian border.
Going forward, an international agreement on how to occupy former IS territory is growing more urgent by the day. Without such understandings, the parties run the risk of direct confrontation between Russian and American forces. For instance, how would Washington respond if U.S.-backed rebels were bombed by Russian aviation? And how might Moscow and Damascus react if Syrian army forces or their militia allies are struck in the Badia again? At a time when the Russian ground presence in Syria is reportedly growing and multiple factions are rushing to seize former IS territory in the desert, the potential for missteps is high, and the resultant diplomatic and military fallout could be dangerous.
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