Tensions between the United States and Iran have heated up in recent weeks, as the two tangle over the shape of postwar Syria and Iraq. The United States is attempting to block Iran from overland access to Syria, and the ayatollahs are pushing back with sophisticated drones. The United States has shot down two large, armed, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the past two weeks, which were targeting US troops and their proxies. A week ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explicitly called in an open session of Congress for regime change in Iran. At the same time, Washington depends on pro-Iranian militias in Iraq in its final push against the so-called Islamic State (aka ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) group there. The apparent US ambition of controlling the 372-mile Syrian-Iraqi border is implausible, and the attempt will prolong the bloody Syrian civil war.
Iran, for its part, continues to attempt to demonstrate that it is a player in the Middle East. After an attack by ISIL in Tehran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Sunday fired seven Zolfiqar missiles, with a range of 435 miles, at ISIL positions in Deir al-Zour Province, Syria. While only two appear to have stuck their targets, it is hard not to conclude that Iran demonstrated a new level of military capability by this action. Despite Israeli attempts to play it down, that Iran was able to hit ISIL with rockets in a country with which it does not share a border underlines its growing military sophistication.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attempted to downplay the aggressive rhetoric of the IRGC, terming it “a justified act of self-defense.” As analyst Maysam Behravesh noted, the strike was also intended to send a message to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States, at a time of open Trump administration collusion with its two major allies against Iran.
In the meantime, Iran is asserting itself in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border, where the United States and its Syrian Kurdish and Arab allies appear to be attempting to build a zone of control that would block overland Iranian shipments of men and arms to Syria and Lebanon. The United States has its own reasons for wanting to curtail Iranian influence, but it is also acting in a way that will please its Israeli and Saudi partners in the region.
At the moment, Syria’s eastern border is largely controlled by ISIL, but the Pentagon appears to hope that as their Kurdish and Free Syrian Army allies roll up the terrorist organization, these friendlies can be inserted into this borderland region to prevent pro-Iranian Shiite militias, whether Iraqi, Syrian, or Lebanese, from asserting themselves there. There are some 1,000 US Special Forces personnel embedded with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the core of which is leftist Kurdish militiamen of the YPG, or People’s Protection Units. Kurds predominate in the northeast of Syria, but Raqqa and Deir al-Zour to the south are Sunni Arab.
Two weeks ago, Iran used an armed Shahed-139 drone to send a shot across the bow of US troops at the Tanf garrison in the Syrian southeast. On Monday, another large drone with “dirty wings” (i.e., carrying rockets) was approaching the coalition training camp at Tanf near the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian triangle, when a US fighter jet blew it out of the sky (a major highway in Iraq runs west from Baghdad through al-Rutba toward Jordan and also forks to go into southern Syria and thence Damascus and Beirut).