Men play chess in front of a damaged building in Maaret al-Naaman, Idlib province. Photo: Reuters / Khalil Ashawi
Men play chess in front of a damaged building in Maaret al-Naaman, Idlib province. Photo: Reuters / Khalil Ashawi

Two weeks ago, a joint Jordanian-US military exercise,  code-named “Eager Lion,” was carried out on the Syrian-Jordanian border.

This is nothing new – it has been annual practice since 2010. Yet this time it struck a raw nerve in the upper echelons of Tehran, where many saw it as a prelude to the step-by-step closure of the Syrian-Iraqi border. If that happens it would seal off Iran’s only ground route to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Mediterranean, creating a wall between Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah’s media were the first to report the border operations, before either Jordan or the US, and denounced the drills as a threat to Syria’s sovereignty.

A series of week-long simulation scenarios, Eager Lion aims at training allied troops on how to respond to conventional and unconventional threats on the battlefield, including non-state players such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the branch of al-Qaeda  in Syria, Islamic State (ISIS) and even Hezbollah, whose troops are stationed nearby on the Syrian side of the border. US President Donald Trump insists that he wants to eradicate ISIS from the Middle East and to expel Hezbollah from Syria.

For three solid decades, Iranian money, arms, goods and personnel have reached Hezbollah camps in southern Lebanon by land. The Damascus-Baghdad highway runs across these borders.

Everything east of the Euphrates River is currently controlled by the US and its proxy Kurdish militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), while the town of Albukamal is in the hands of ISIS. Everything south of Albukamal, all the way to al-Tanf along the Iraqi border, is territory that the Syrian Army has been trying to secure: it launched a counter-operation on May 6, retaking 1,000 square kilometers in the Syrian Desert.

Leading the race – against government troops and Hezbollah – for control of the Syrian side of the Iraqi border, is the New Syrian Army, a commando force that was created by the Americans and given bases in Jordan roughly two years ago. Its troops were parachuted into the first battle of Albukamal during the summer of 2016, with the aim of liberating it from ISIS.

That operation went terribly wrong because the residents of Albukamal refused to take up arms against friends and family who happened to be members of Islamic State. Now, the New Syrian Army is handling the Syrian-Iraqi border, working closely with “Commandos of the Revolution,” another US-backed novelty controlling the desert hills from al-Tanf to the countryside around the city of Deir ez-Zor. That area includes Humeimeh, a strategic village in the vicinity of Deir ez-Zor that will be used by the Americans as a launch pad for their final push on Albukamal, although only after first securing al-Raqqah first and Deir ez-Zor itself.

When these three Syrian cities are liberated, the US hopes to create a “shadow buffer” between Deir ez-Zor and the ancient city of Homs, preventing its infiltration either by ISIS, al-Nusra or Hezbollah.

According to Hezbollah, this is actually the main objective of all the military drills on the Syrian-Jordanian border – that it’s nothing less than a massive military operation aimed at re-taking what remains of the 599km border. In Damascus, the feeling is that Jordan is trying to carve out a safe zone for itself along the southern border, identical to the one secured by Turkey last August when its armed forces and proxies marched into the towns of Jarablus and Azaz, then took al-Bab, 30-km south of the Turkish border.

No more battles as big as the one in Aleppo last December – just re-distribution of spoils and territory, according to the new rules of engagement

The Turks hope to relocate 2.3 million Syrian refugees into this safe zone, while Jordan hopes to do the same with the 1.4 million Syrians living in its towns and villages since 2011, possibly in the strategic border city of Daraa. Amman ultimately hopes to use this safe zone to push ISIS – known in southern Syria as the Khaled Ibn Al-Waleed Army – away from the Syrian-Jordanian border. Step one would be halting Iran’s access to that border; step two would be pushing ISIS away; three would be setting up the buffer zone.

The more Syria breaks down into spheres of influence, the more secure the Russians become within their zone of influence, which remains the largest in Syria and the most visible to locals and stakeholders alike. That might explain why Moscow has not objected to the troop build-up on the Jordanian border, nor even commented on it. Ever since its troops entered the Syrian battlefield in September 2015, Russia has been willing to cut deals with different parties, letting the Kurds and their US allies establish influence east of the Euphrates while satisfying itself with everything west of it. The Russians have also accepted co-sharing small parts of it as well with the Turks in the north and now with the Jordanians in the south, while agreeing to “pockets” of Iranian influence within the so-called Russian section of Syria.

The more Russia facilitates safe-zones like the ones agreed upon in Astana last month, or pockets of influence for different stakeholders, the less likely these countries will interfere in territories that are vital for its future project in Syria – namely Damascus, Aleppo, the coast and the central regions. This is effectively transforming the Syrian map into more of a chessboard than a battlefield. No more battles as big as the one in Aleppo last December – just re-distribution of spoils and territory, according to the new rules of engagement.

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