Events taking place in a remote stretch of southeast Syrian desert in recent days reveal the current direction of US Middle East strategy.
An observable ratcheting up of US and allied air and special forces activity in eastern Syria is currently under way. This in turn appears to derive from a new, hard-nosed understanding of the nature of the strategic game in the large, strife-ridden area covering what was once Syria and Iraq.
On Thursday, May 18th, US aircraft launched strikes on a column of Assad regime vehicles including tanks and earth-movers, 18 miles from the town of al-Tanf, on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The strikes took place after the vehicles entered an agreed deconfliction zone around the town. US and British special forces are currently training “vetted partner forces,” i.e. Syrian Sunni Arab rebels, in the town.
This was the second occasion in recent weeks that US aircraft have directly engaged against Assad’s forces. On the first occasion, the target was the al-Shayrat airbase. That raid took place on April 6. It was a clear retaliation for the regime’s use of sarin gas at Khan Sheikhoun on April 4. The Shayrat raid was generally interpreted as a belated attempt to enforce the American “red line” against further regime use of chemical weapons. As such, it was not widely seen as indicating a more general change of policy.
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