Representational image. Photo: iStock
Representational image. Photo: iStock

The move by the US military to shift for the first time the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) into Syrian territory from Jordan is “breaking news.” According to CNN, the deployment will be at the military base in Al-Tanf near Syria’s border with Iraq in the south-eastern region, which is currently an area of contestation between US-backed rebel groups and Syrian government forces.

The Russian Ministry of Defence has signaled disquiet. A statement in Moscow on Thursday speculated that the deployment suggests the US intends to attack Syrian government forces. The Russian statement said:

  • The range of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System is not enough to support the US-backed units… in Raqqa. At the same time, the US-led anti-terrorist coalition has several times attacked the Syrian government forces near the Jordanian border, so it can be assumed that such attacks will continue, but this time involving the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems.

Such authoritative Russian statements, even while speculative, must be reliant on intelligence input. But the key assumption here is not matched by facts insofar as the HIMARS is a truck-mounted system that can hit targets 300km away (which roughly brings Raqqa within range from Al-Tanf) and, therefore, it can reach practically anywhere in Syria.

Clearly, the US intention(s) needs to be interpreted. One possibility could be that it might actually be a defensive move. A standard practice with all militaries is to draw up threat perceptions from a “maximalist” angle, and the fact is that the US Special Forces deployed in Syria only number 1,000 or so, and are thinly spread on the ground. And the US has so far counted on other protagonists – government forces, Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey and Russia – to exercise absolute self-restraint in not confronting the American forces.

This tacit understanding (or pragmatism on both sides) has worked well enough so far. But US-Russia relations continue to deteriorate. Indeed, at the recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the 2018 US defence budget, the only positive reference to Russia came from General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who spoke with discernible satisfaction about the lines of communication with Moscow at the military-to-military level working just fine and being put to great use to ensure that no misunderstanding arises at the operational level in Syria. Dunford flagged the lines of communication at multiple levels, including between him and his Russian counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia.

The US has so far counted on other protagonists – government forces, Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey and Russia – to exercise absolute self-restraint in not confronting the American forces

Nonetheless, war is war, and all is fair in love and war. Unsurprisingly, there is nothing like a bit of self-help in such uncertain times. The point is that the HIMARS provides an alternate means for US forces to hit their adversary if air operations are not feasible for some reason – or it is simply a preferable option. From all appearances, the US plans to establish military bases in southern Syria (similar to what it has done in the northern regions bordering Turkey and Iraq) and, if this is the case, the HIMARS becomes part of the defense perimeter.

Suffice it to say, it all boils down to the big question: what are Washington’s political-military intentions in Syria? At a press briefing in Baghdad on June 7, Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, maintained that the US military presence in and around Al-Tanf (near the Syrian-Iraqi border) is temporary.

While explaining the rationale for the recent US attacks on Syrian government forces in that area, McGurk said:

  • That stretch of southern Syria… has been almost lawless and controlled by Daesh [ISIS]. So, some time ago, working with some Syrians in the area… we set up a facility to… make sure that Daesh cannot encroach upon those areas of the Iraqi border and the Jordanian border. Our mission is simple: to fight Daesh. At the same time, where we have US personnel on the ground, we will protect our people. We have an inherent right of self-defense… But the mission is to fight Daesh. When the fight against Daesh is over, we won’t be there.

Obviously, Syrian government forces are interested in regaining control of their country’s border with Iraq. President Bashar Al-Assad has repeatedly insisted that he intends to regain control of the whole of Syria. And there are sufficient indications that the Syrian government forces are being deployed to regain the vast, vacant, lawless spaces in eastern Syria bordering Iraq.

This Syrian military thrust has been interpreted by some commentators as aimed at opening a land route across Iraq all the way to Iran through which Tehran can beef up Hezbollah. The assumption here is that a 1,000km land bridge connecting Damascus with Tehran (via al-Tanf and Baghdad) will serve that purpose. Military analysts, however, are unsure.

Rodger Shanagan at the Lowe Institute, an Australian think-tank, pointed out in a recent commentary that Tehran has been helping Hezbollah for the past several years (or the past decade) by airlifting supplies to Damascus via an air bridge and transferring them to Lebanon.

To be sure, the HIMARS is a “force multiplier.” Therefore, how the US puts it to use can significantly impact the military balance. On the whole, its deployment can be seen against the backdrop of the ongoing operations against ISIS in Raqqa. It could be tactical and temporary, necessitated by the current US presence on Syrian soil.

Interestingly, Tehran does not seem unduly perturbed by the HIMARS deployment. They seem quietly pleased that McGurk came all the way from Washington to their neighborhood to underscore the Pentagon’s intentions in Al-Tanf.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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