The Eastern Syrian Battleground

Syrian Democratic Forces seize an area from jihadists on June 14.

The Eastern Syrian Battleground

As the Islamic State fades into the background, the real fight for control of the Middle East begins.

For the first time in 20 years, a United States jet has shot down an enemy aircraft in battle. On Sunday, June 18, a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet targeted a Syrian SU-22 fighter-bomber after the Syrian jet bombed the Syrian Democratic Forces, a United States ally.

Then, later on Sunday, Iran fired six ballistic missiles from its western provinces, flying over Iraq and hitting targets inside Syria. This marked Tehran’s first missile attack abroad in 15 years. While Iran’s target this time was the Islamic State, it was meant as a message to the U.S.

These two acts on Sunday punctuate a dangerous escalation in the Syrian civil war that threatens to pit world powers against each other in direct combat.

The territorial holdings of the Islamic State have retracted considerably in the past two years so that it now only holds on to a shrunken contiguous territory across the border of eastern Syria and western Iraq. As anticipated, this means that those major powers, and mortal enemies, such as Iran, Russia and the U.S. are creeping slowly toward each other. It is making the dusty plains of eastern Syria the location of a critical showdown.

And, to this point, no one seems to be backing down.

As discussed at length on the Trumpet, Iran is intent on capturing this border territory in order to connect its strong Shiite militias in Iraq to the territory controlled by the Syrian regime (an Iranian ally) in Syria. Recognizing that this would provide Iran with control of a land corridor from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea, the U.S. is working with the Syrian rebels and the Kurds to ensure this doesn’t happen.

Look at the following timeline from the past three months and realize that in the previous six years of the Syrian civil war, there was not one instance of direct fighting between the U.S. and Iranian proxies. Now, they clash almost daily.

  • April 4: Syrian President Bashar Assad launched a devastating chemical attack against his own people.
  • April 6: U.S. President Donald Trump responded by firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Mediterranean against the Syrian airfield, which marked the first time the U.S. had directly targeted the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.
  • May 18: A group from the Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigade, an Iranian-supported militia, approached the American al-Tanf military base on the border between Syria, Iraq and Jordan and, subsequently, was destroyed by aircraft.
  • May 29: Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, a massive fighting force of mainly Iranian-backed militias, reached the Syrian border from Iraqi territory for the first time. Pictures were widely circulated in Iranian and Syrian media.
  • June 6: An Iranian-backed militia advanced on the “deconfliction” zone in southern Syria. After repeated warnings to halt, U.S. aircraft destroyed the column of vehicles, including two artillery pieces, an antiaircraft weapon and a tank.
  • June 8: An Iranian drone dropped a munition on U.S. coalition forces near al-Tanf, but it failed to detonate. The U.S. shot down the drone.
  • June 12: Iranian state media released photographs of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Cmdr. Qassem Suleimani standing on the Iraqi-Syrian border alongside an Iranian backed militia, culminating a lightning offensive across eastern Syria to reach the border.
  • June 14: The U.S. moved its mobile artillery rocket launchers into southern Syria for the first time in order to provide a 300-kilometer (186-mile) security umbrella for its troops along the border.
  • June 18: The U.S. shot down a Syrian jet for bombing its allies in the most significant ratcheting up of tensions to date.
  • June 18: Iran’s revolutionary guard launched six ballistic missiles toward Syria, traveling 370 miles and receiving permission to fly over Iraqi territory. Gen. Ramazan Sharif told state media that “the Saudis and Americans are especially receivers of the message.”

Obviously, this situation in Syria is highly combustible, especially considering that each side does not want to back down. As Mahan Abedin correctly noted in Middle East Monitor on June 6, a clash is “inevitable.” He wrote:

In view of the fact that a central aim of U.S. concentration of forces, advisers and proxies in areas close to the Iraqi border appears to be to derail the Iranian land corridor project, a clash at some point is inevitable. De-escalation on this front by either party sends an unmistakable message of weakness with wider repercussions for control of post-conflict Syria.

Now that the Islamic State is losing territory, the interests of the big players are becoming easier to discern. Clearly, the driving force for the increased tension is Iran’s push to control the territory across to the Mediterranean Sea. In many ways, the reaction from the U.S. to stand in the way of that march and draw the line in eastern Syria to try and contain Iran is somewhat surprising, especially given Mr. Trump’s isolationist rhetoric in the lead-up to his election.

In the short to medium term, the battle for eastern Syria is bound to intensify given Iran’s unrelenting efforts towards its controlling this territory. Iran’s leadership is fundamentally committed to holding the territory it captures from the Islamic State, which is why it entered the fight in the first place.

The question then isn’t whether Iran will stand down, but rather, will the United States? And if it does, will another world power step in to contain Iran?

We at the Trumpet are carefully observing eastern Syria, because the Bible indicates this region will be a source of continuous friction in the end time. As we have forecast since 1994, Iran is due to lead an alliance known as the king the south. Iraq will be included in this alliance; Syria, however, won’t be. This means that Iran’s goal of reaching the Mediterranean Sea will not be successful. It will be stopped in its tracks somewhere close to that Syrian-Iraqi border, the location of the current tension.

However, the Bible doesn’t indicate who will stop Iran. But it does show that it will not be Iran nor Russia nor even the U.S. that dominates Syria. For more about Syria’s future in the post civil war era, please read Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry’s piece “How the Syrian Crisis Will End.”