News of attacks and counter-attacks between US forces in Syria and what Washington described as Iranian-backed militias came hours after media reports of Syrian-Saudi reconciliation this week.
It also came just days after another Israeli attack on Aleppo Airport in northern Syria, amid claims that this had taken place to intercept Iranian supplies being given to its proxy militias in Syria and Lebanon.
The US attacks started with a drone attack on a US base at the Al-Omar oilfield in Deir Al-Zor in northeastern Syria that killed a US contractor and injured half a dozen US troops.
According to the Associated Press, US fighters were scrambled from the Al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar within an hour of the drone attack, and strikes on militia bases on the opposite side of the Euphrates River killed more than a dozen militia members.
This was followed by missiles targeting the US base at the oilfield, where no casualties were reported.
Though such skirmishes are not rare, the Friday flare-up was one of the most deadly to have taken place, especially in terms of US casualties. The Pentagon’s press secretary stopped short of blaming Tehran for the attacks, however, saying that they were carried out by “groups affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard” (IRGC).
Iranian media outlets close to the IRGC denied any Iranian militia involvement, claiming the deaths from the US air raid in Syria were civilians working in an agricultural development centre in the area.
Most of northern Syria is under the control of groups opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, mainly US-backed Kurdish fighters and Turkish-backed militant Islamist groups.
The government in Damascus controls only 65 per cent of the country’s territory. While the US has bases in the east, Turkey controls the northwest, and the largest US base is in Tanf in southeastern Syria close to the border with Iraq and assists Israeli efforts at preventing Iranian arms supplies from reaching the Lebanese Hizbullah group through Iraq and Syria.
The US bases in the northeast control Syrian oilfields that were once under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group, and Syria has accused the US of stealing millions of tons of Syrian oil.
The US forces were based in Syria in 2014 as part of a wider coalition against the Islamic State group, and though Washington announced in 2019 that this had been destroyed in Iraq and Syria, it kept its forces in Syria, supposedly to help the Syrian Kurds root out the remnants of the terrorist group.
There are reportedly 10,000 terrorists in detention or dispersed in “sleeper cells” in the region in addition to an unaccounted number that includes family members kept in camps.
Meanwhile, Pro-Israeli Republican Party figures in the US Congress have accused US President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party administration of being “lenient” with regards to Iran.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted this week that “the targets the Iranians fear most are their refineries. For every attack against Americans in the future, take down an Iranian refinery and their oil and gas infrastructure,” he said.
Other Republicans have repeated the same line, seen by some analysts as following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position on the need to strike Iran.
The military escalation in Syria coincided with Netanyahu’s tour of Europe, intended to persuade European leaders that they should abandon any revival of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. At the same time, few around the world doubt that Arab reconciliation with Iran is against Israeli and US interests.
Even so, the diplomacy of such reconciliation in the region is rapidly progressing, and Al-Assad paid an official visit to the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi a few days ago, the second in a year, and following another visit to the Sultanate of Oman just before the news of Damascus and Riyadh agreeing to restore diplomatic relations was made public.
Some commentators in the region have gone as far as to see the recent attacks on the US forces in Syria as a “green light for the Syrians to expel the Americans from their country, and following them the Turks.”
But others believe that bringing Syria back into the Arab fold is not related to these developments. There are also some circles that think that Israel is behind the escalation to sabotage any Gulf rapprochement with Iran, Iraq, Syria and other countries where Iran has influence.
These scenarios may not align with the official narrative seen in the region, but one component of them that carries some credibility is that the region is no longer just under US hegemony and that some countries are actively seeking alliances with other powers like China and Russia.
As Al-Assad’s visit to Abu Dhabi coincided with the news of the Syrian-Saudi reconciliation, some opposition circles in the country have attempted to propagate the view that the Saudis and Emiratis are in competition or even disagree on regional policies.
The UAE was the first Arab country to restore full relations with Syria a couple of years ago. Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, tweeted that the “Emirati approach towards Syria is part of a deep vision targeting enhancing regional stability… The events of the ‘Decade of Chaos’ prove that it is best for the Arab world to face its issues away from regional and international interference.”
It was not clear what “interference” Gargash had in mind.
The Syrian leadership is keen on improving its relations with the Arab states that boycotted Damascus more than a decade ago after the outbreak of the conflict in Syria. However, it is reluctant to make major concessions, especially if these might mean scaling back its alliances with Iran or Russia.
What might help Damascus now is for the Gulf and Arab countries that are already cosying up to Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing to distance themselves from Washington and Tel Aviv.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly