Beginning of August, the BBC released the first ever photographs of British special forces in Syria (see one of the photos on the right). The photos showed twelve heavily armed elite soldiers with four accompanying vehicles and weapons. They were taken around the al-Tanf military garrison near the Syrian border with Jordan after an Islamic State (ISIS) attack on it in June.
For months now it has been public knowledge that the British are there to help the Americans in their endeavour to create a new counter-ISIS force (the New Syrian Army) to work with on the ground in Syria. That is the groups sole stated purpose, not to be used as a proxy against the Syrian regime. However they are not there under the authorization of the regime in Damascus – which the US does not want to work with, even if just against ISIS.
In mid-June there was a controversial incident when two Russian Su-34 Fullback jets bombed the New Syrian Army forces at Al-Tanf, an attack which transpired 24-hours after the British forces left the base for Jordan. Even after two US Navy F/A-18 Hornet’s were scrambled to intercept the Fullbacks and warned them off they still came back for a second bombing run after those Hornet’s had to leave the vicinity to refuel.
While Russia claimed it was an accident it’s worth at least considering that Russia may intentionally have been acting on behalf of its ally in Damascus to demonstrate that such forces on Syrian soil are not invulnerable to sudden attack. While also taking very careful precautions to ensure they did not kill any of the British forces there nor risk a serious clash with the US coalition, with which they set-up a communications mechanism to avoid any accidental shoot-downs or clashes.
The Syrian regime has claimed in the past it is willing to work with the Americans against ISIS, but that their operations must be coordinated with Damascus. Something the Americans refused to do since they deem that regime to be illegitimate.
Damascus also denounced the presence of western special forces in northeastern Syrian, where they are training the Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) anti-ISIS fighting-force, as well as western volunteers, who have joined that group. Such a clear aversion to these foreign forces in Syria is something that should be borne in mind and might serve as an explanation for Russia’s bombing of al-Tanf.
Incidentally a not too dissimilar precedent, wherein a foreign powers deployed their own soldiers to train proxy anti-ISIS forces to another country without that countries authorization, happened in Northern Iraq last December. It revolved around Turkey’s deployment of combat troops without the permission of the Iraqi government. Although Turkey had been permitted to send military advisors to its forward-operating-base in Bashiqa it was not authorized to deploy combat troops – which they did that month, much to the consternation of Baghdad which demanded an immediately and unconditional withdrawal.
The Turkish government later said it sent its combat troops to protect its advisors at that base, which is by the front-lines with ISIS. During that same month Bashiqa was shelled by those militants. Interestingly Kataeb Hezbollah, one of the Shiite militias fighting ISIS more than 100 kilometers south of Bashiqa at the time, also claimed responsibility for that attack. This was a clear bid on the part of that group to depict itself as being on the forefront of combating any foreign military presence in Iraq, even if that foreigner was also there primarily in order to combat a mutual enemy.
Turkey claimed that attack, and subsequent attacks by ISIS this year, was ample justification for the need to deploy those combat forces. The Iraqi government countered by reasoning that Turkey doesn’t need to train forces so near the front-lines with ISIS.
More recently Shiite militia leaders have also warned the US about setting-up military bases and deploying combat troops, even in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, as part of the coalitions counter-ISIS war and even threatened the attack them.
These two incidents are salient reminders that, weak as they may be from the years of destabilizing conflict which ultimately led to the rise of ISIS, the Iraqi and Syrian states are unlikely to remain willingly passive when foreign powers deploy military forces on their soil without their authorization.
- “America’s failed efforts to establish an anti-IS Syrian fighting-force“, offiziere.ch, 11.07.2016.
- By the way… last week Russia started to operate from the Iranian Hamedan airbase and bombed targets in Syria.
- “The Iraqi government is really insistent that if any armed groups in the country want guns — the Kurds, mainly — they must go through Baghdad first. Now Iraq is getting the means to enforce that policy through its new F-16 fighter jets. Try to land a cargo plane in Iraqi Kurdistan without asking, and Iraq will have the means to intercept you … and even shoot you down.” — Paul Iddon, “Will Iraq’s new F-16’s police the ‘One Iraq’ policy?“, offiziere.ch, 18.11.2015.