US strikes convoy of Assad’s army and allied forces in southern Syria
While many were hoping that the US cruise missile strike against Bashar al-Assad’s al-Shayrat airbase 6 weeks ago would remain an isolated incident, that is no longer the case as US-led coalition warplanes have bombed a pro-Assad militia convoy near al-Tanf.
According to the US military, the convoy of tanks and other vehicles posed a threat to nearby US and British forces stationed at al-Tanf.1 Reports vary, but the air strike is said to have destroyed one to two T62 tanks and killed six to eight people. The casualties were described by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) as “non-Syrian fighters,” which, if true, indicates the presence of Hezbollah and/or Iranian backed Shiite militia members in the convoy.
DEBKAfile has claimed that Hezbollah’s elite Radwan unit bore the brunt of the casualties and damage.2 Consistent with DEBKAfile’s claims, one day before the attack Farsnews reported that 3,000 Hezbollah troops had been deployed to the al-Tanf region to thwart “US plots” in the region.3
However, Al Masdar news has reported that the main group in the convoy was an Alawite one known as Saraya Al-‘Areen, which was trained by Hezbollah.4 There was also Syrian Arab Army, National Defense Forces, and Imam Al-‘Ali Regiment (a part of the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces militias) personnel present in the convey as well.
The convoy appears to be a part of a military buildup in the region by “Syrian Arab Army, the National Defense Forces, and Iraqi PMU-affiliated militias,” in preparation for an offensive on the al-Tanf border crossing.5 ISIL is active in the area, although the border crossing itself is held by the FSA. On Saturday Norwegian special forces arrived on the Syrian side of the al-Tanf border crossing to provide backup to the FSA against a possible attack by ISIL.6
While this is the official story, the other possible reason for the deployment of Norwegian forces is to counter the Syrian regime. If the latter captures the border crossing, Iranian backed Shiite militias in southern Syria would be able to link up with their brethren in Iraq and Iran.
In spite of the US air strike, this buildup of Syrian and allied forces is continuing and “anti-aircraft units” are also being deployed to defend against future US action.7 The anti-aircraft unit may include the “short-range Strela-10 air defense system and a Shilka self-propelled, radar guided anti-aircraft weapon system.”8 As of Friday, Syrian regime forces were only 20 kilometers away from al-Tanf.9
Reaction of Syria and her allies
The Russians and Syrians are none too pleased with the US air strike. According to a regime military source speaking to Syrian state media:10
“This brazen attack by the so-called international coalition exposes the falseness of its claims to be fighting terrorism. The Syrian Arab Army is fighting terrorism on its territory, and no party has the right to determine the course of its operations. The Syrian Arab Army will… not be intimidated by the attempts of the so-called coalition to stop it from performing its sacred duties.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov responded:11
“Any military actions leading to the aggravation of the situation in Syria definitely affect the political process. Especially if such actions are committed against the Syrian armed forces… This is totally unacceptable; it is a violation of Syrian sovereignty. Of course, it does not help the political process.”
His superior, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also commented, “Whatever the reason for the decisions that the US command made to carry out that strike was, the strike is illegitimate, it is illegal and a regular gross violation of the Syrian Arab Republic’s sovereignty.”12 Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi characterized the attack as having “been carried out under an unfounded pretext and with the purpose of covering up the problems facing the American statesmen at both domestic and international levels.”13
Why did the US military bomb the convoy?
So what are we to make of the US air strike against Assad’s forces and his allies? Here are some possible explanations for why the US decided to undertake such action (in no particular order).
With President Trump under extreme pressure domestically over the his alleged connections to Russia and his supposed pressuring of former FBI director James Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, it could be possible that he ordered a limited military strike against Assad’s forces to divert attention away from these troubles. It is interesting that just a few days ago Dr. Jerome Corsi advocated Trump should make use of propaganda techniques to counter the mainstream media’s onslaught against him.14
One of these techniques includes “changing the subject”, i.e. diverting people’s attention from the mainstream media narrative, to another narrative of Trump’s choosing. What better way to do this than to start a ‘limited’ conflict in Syria, possibly involving Russia.
Trump could also be sending a message in advance of his tour of the Middle East. Currently he is in Saudi Arabia signing weapons deals worth $350 billion and attempting to create an Arab NATO organization to combat terrorism. The air strike may have been an attempt by Trump to show the Saudis and Israelis that he will be a reliable ally who is willing to take action against regional threats such as Assad, unlike his predecessor Obama.
It is also very possible that the order to strike did not come from Trump, but originated from the US military itself. In this case Trump would have had no foreknowledge of the air strike. This is a plausible scenario as Trump does not seem to have control of neither his administration or his military and has in fact given the latter much autonomy.15 Case in point, many are speculating whether Trump specifically authorized or even knew about the use of the Mother of All Bombs in Afghanistan.16
If Trump did not order or okay the al-Tanf air strike, then why did the military decide to so? The most innocuous explanation is that the official story of the US military is correct, that Syrian and allied rebel forces posed a threat to US forces and their rebel proxies (such as Commandos of the Revolution and Jaish al-Ashair) and decided to intervene before the situation escalated and to provide a warning to Assad and company not to further their belligerence.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis may have been telling the truth when he reassured, “We are not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops. … We will defend ourselves (if) people take aggressive steps against us. And that’s been a going-in policy of ours for a long time.”17 Or maybe not.
It is also possible that the US military was motivated by more than concern for their special forces. According to Mohammed Jamjoon:1
“A military source said the US-led coalition will not allow the Iranian militias to reach the border between Syria and Iraq in order to have an opportunity to connect with Iranian militias on the Iraqi side. The source said that the Americans will have to protect their position because the alternative would be tantamount to a withdrawal that would leave the front line to ISIL and Iranian militias.”
In effect the US is concerned about Iran gaining the ascendency in the al-Tanf region, which not only controls over land travel from Damascus to Baghdad, and even onwards to Iran, but would also allow Iran to place further pressure on Israel via the Golan Heights. DEBKAfile has recently reported that “Israeli security chiefs were gravely concerned” about the control of the al-Tanf border crossing.18 That Norwegian special forces were deployed to the Syrian side of the al-Tanf border crossing lends credence that the US-led coalition is more concerned stymying Assad than the security of their own troops.
It could also be that the US military, in particular National Security Adviser (NSA) H. R. McMaster, is itching to escalate the US intervention in Syria, not only to fight against ISIL, but more importantly to oust Assad. It has already been reported by Mike Cernovich that McMaster wants to deploy 150,000 ground troops to Syria.19 Notwithstanding the al Shayrat strike, Trump has thus far resisted McMaster’s plan for a full scale invasion of Syria.20 Could the al-Tanf air strike be an attempt by McMaster and company to increase tensions with Assad, possibly to the point of the latter directly retaliating against US troops, thereby prompting a significant military response by Trump?
Related to this possibility, was the recent allegations by the US State Department that Assad is executing 50 prisoners a day at the Saydnaya military prison, and is covering up the atrocity by incinerating the bodies.21 Such claims are based on intelligence sources and satellite imagery showing a building at Saydnaya which was emitting an ‘above normal’ amount of heat through its roof. For some reason US intelligence and the State Department automatically assumed that such a heat signature indicates the presence of a Nazi style concentration camp crematorium.
While such accusations seem rather ridiculous, they are consistent with past American demonization of Assad. Even White House spokesman Sean Spicer, following the Khan Sheikhoun chemical gas incident, went so far as to describe Assad as worse than Hitler.22 Just as false testimony claiming Saddam Hussein’s forces were killing babies in Kuwait was used by the US to bolster its case for the invasion of Iraq in 1991,23 it appears the same demonization tactics are being used by the US today against Assad, who we are being led to believe is a Hitler-like figure that must be removed from power. In the context of such propaganda, maybe the al-Tanf air strike is another step realizing the American establishment’s strong desire for all out war in Syria.
Another possibility, related to the previous one, is that the al-Tanf air strike is intended to further sour relations between Trump and Russia, and to prevent reconciliation and cooperation between the two. Isn’t it odd that following Lavrov’s and Kislyak’s (Russia’s ambassador to the US) White House meeting with Trump, which appeared to go as well as could be hoped for under the current climate, that a few days later, another US military strike has been conducted against Syrian regime forces, which has further strained Russian-US relations?
Such a course of events seems rather similar to what happened prior to the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley both essentially stated that America’s priority in Syria was not the ousting of Assad.24 Conveniently, a few days after such statements, the Khan Sheikhoun chemical gas incident occurred, which prompted Trump to abruptly change his stance towards Assad. It seems when Trump starts to warm towards Assad or Russia, some incident occurs which forestalls rapprochement. Maybe this is a coincidence or maybe not.
It should also be noted that with Iran, Russia and Turkey having agreed to impose four de-escalation zones in Syria, the US military may be attempting to counter this agreement which they are not involved in. The US-led coalition has established their own “de-confliction zone” in the al-Tanf area, which the Operation Inherent Resolve coalition has stated was violated by the regime and allied rebel convoy.25
If one wants to get even more conspiratorial, there is also the possibility that the US military launched the air strikes in an attempt to protect their ‘proxy army’ ISIL. As has already been mentioned the regime and allied forces amassing in the al-Tanf region, are fighting against ISIL in addition to other rebel groups. By striking the convoy the US military is obviously making it more challenging for Assad to defeat his enemies. One could argue that their are similarities in the al-Tanf air strike and the one that occurred at Deir ez-Zor in September 2016, when US war planes mistakenly bombed Syrian army positions, killing over 80 soldiers and thereby allowing ISIL to over run the positions.26
There are many possibilities as to why the US bombed the Syrian convoy in al-Tanf region, but the most likely explanation is that they are sending a message to Assad and Iran to stay away from the al-Tanf border crossing. It is also probable that Trump did not directly authorize the strike, that it was wholely conceived by the US military. If this is the case then it is also likely the strike was intended to further strain Trump’s relations with Russia and to provide a provocation for increased US intervention in Syria.
It appears Assad has not been dissuaded. His buildup of forces in the al-Tanf region is continuing, and with US, British and Norwegian special forces in the area as well, it is possible that a direct confrontation may occur between the two opposing groups. Such a confrontation could easily escalate leading to an increased deployment of US troops in Syria, even a wide scale invasion. I am sure the US military-industrial complex/neo-con establishment are salivating at such prospects.
 http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/05/civilians-die-isil-attacks-aleppo-homs-170518151433809.html , http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2017/05/18/522397/Syria-US-jets-alTanf-bomb-airstrike , http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-05-18/us-coalition-jets-strike-assad-convoy-southern-syria , https://southfront.org/us-led-coalition-carried-out-aairstrikes-on-syrian-army-convoy-advancing-towards-iraqi-border/
 https://southfront.org/norwegian-force-deeployed-al-tanf-border-crossing-syrian-iraqi-border/ , https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/norwegian-army-enters-southern-syria-aid-endangered-rebels-border-crossing/ , https://www.debka.com/article/26065/Syria-allies-push-back-at-US-held-border-post
 http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/russia-us-in-row-over-coalition-strikes-on-syrian-forces-.aspx?pageID=238&nID=113285&NewsCatID=352 , http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/05/syria-russia-condemn-led-strike-pro-assad-forces-170519080857161.html
 http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-05-15/state-department-accuses-assad-covering-mass-killings-syria , http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2017/05/16/522110/Syria-Washington-crematorium , http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2017/05/16/Damascus-Prison-crematorium-claims-by-the-US-are-totally-unfounded-.html
 http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2017/03/30/Tillerson-Assad-s-long-term-status-to-be-decided-by-Syrian-people.html , http://www.presstv.ir/DetailFa/2017/03/30/516177/US-no-more-seeking-removal-of-Assad-Nikki-Haley