Strategic setbacks for US, Israel as the Resistance Axis gains ground in Syria

Khalil Nasrallah, The Cradle, May 14, 2024 ─ 

Recent resistance operations in eastern Syria have established new rules of engagement that constrain both Washington and Tel Aviv’s once-untethered freedom to operate in this strategic theater.

For several years, the presence of the region’s Axis of Resistance forces in Syria has remained vulnerable to US and Israeli attacks across the country, from east to west. The US has persistently attempted to disrupt the communication routes along the Tehran–Beirut axis, through which Damascus plays an important link. 

Starting in 2017, after eliminating ISIS from this key border crossing, Axis forces have safeguarded passage of vehicles through the vital Al-Qaim–Al-Bukamal road and effectively established rules of engagement in eastern Syria, gradually limiting Washington’s tactical flexibility and dominance. This was a strategically important development – maintaining a foothold west of the Euphrates River to the far southeast of Syria continues to be essential for both state and non-state actors in the resistance.

A shift in tactical approach

Since the Palestinian resistance’s Operation Al-Aqsa Flood last October, many new shifts have emerged on the ground in eastern Syria. With an uptick in Iraqi resistance activities targeting US bases in both Syria and Iraq, a sort of tentative peace emerged in early February, coinciding with Kataib Hezbollah’s temporary suspension of operations. 

During this period, the resistance forces secured new advancements that solidified their position, primarily because Washington had to grudgingly acknowledge the new ground realities – a fait accompli, if you will.

Although the US continued to carry out “retaliatory” strikes targeting the Iraqi resistance, which, to many, seemed to restore some level of peace, this came with significant compromises. 

According to information obtained by The Cradle, the resistance groups have not only established a more pronounced military and political stance during this period of relative calm but have also forced the US to accept crucial losses in the field.

In short, not only has Washington retreated from its provocative operations against regional resistance forces, but Tel Aviv has likewise shown reluctance to launch further raids – so far – in eastern Syria to assassinate fighters affiliated with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The Israeli retreat is not a unilateral decision but a result of US recalibration of these risks. The occupation army cannot launch operations without the American green light and intelligence data, and Washington is currently reluctant to cover Israeli actions that will draw the US deeper into the morass in Syria and Iraq. It also seeks to avoid further resistance attacks on US bases and occupied Syrian oil fields, especially now that it has experienced direct blows from targeted munitions.

It is also not insignificant that the Iraqi resistance has directly targeted key Israeli ports. Tel Aviv cannot afford opening up further military fronts eight months into a conflict in which it is incapable of winning on a single front, in Gaza.

Rules of engagement in Eastern Syria

The rules of engagement in eastern Syria are distinct from those governing interactions in the western and central regions of the country, which primarily involve the Israeli entity and Resistance Axis forces alongside Damascus.

In the east, the main opposition to the resistance forces is the illegal US military occupation and its Kurdish allies. 

This region, stretching across the Euphrates River to Albu Kamal, which abuts Iraq’s Al-Qaim crossing, represents a strategic foothold for the Resistance Axis established in 2017. This was achieved during the “Great Dawn” operations, a series of offensives in three stages led by resistance forces, the Syrian army, and their Russian allies.

These operations enabled the Syrian and Iraqi resistance forces to reach and secure the Al-Qaim crossing, effectively reconnecting the two countries for the first time since 2011, which offered the Axis a world of new tactical advantages.

The establishment of this route, known as the Tehran–Beirut road, was perceived by the US and Israelis as a strategic geopolitical setback to their goal of severing relations and routes between Iran and the Mediterranean. In response, Washington intensified its efforts to destabilize this area through raids and pressures and by supporting attacks by ISIS cells and other militant groups, aiming to prevent the resistance forces from cementing their positions and achieving stability.

These tensions would escalate significantly towards the end of 2019 and into early 2020, following US claims that its forces in Kirkuk were targeted in a rocket attack attributed to the Iraqi resistance. 

Washington responded provocatively by launching heavy strikes against an Iraqi resistance faction in Al-Qaim, killing at least fifty fighters in an operation closely followed by the targeted assassinations of Iranian Quds Force Commander General Qassem Soleimani and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) Deputy Head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

One key goal of this unprovoked US escalation was to prevent the resistance connectivity project, specifically cutting off the roads of communication between Tehran–Baghdad–Damascus–Beirut, which is seen as threatening both the US presence and Israel’s security.

Following the strike on the Ain al-Assad airbase earlier this year, resistance forces moved to intensify their targeting of US military bases using missiles and drones, conducted multiple operations in the Syrian Desert to safeguard transit routes against Washington-backed terror groups, and established protective measures around the US occupation base in Al-Tanf, located near the Syrian–Jordanian–Iraqi border intersection.

Through these coordinated efforts, the Axis of Resistance imposed new rules of engagement, effectively balancing the scales by linking their actions at Albu Kamal and Al-Qaim with significant retaliatory strikes against US bases. 

This approach led to a noticeable reduction in direct US military engagements – which, interestingly and unsurprisingly, coincided with a spike in ISIS cells attempting infiltrations in both Syria and Iraq.

This state of affairs persisted until the Iraqi resistance increased its operations against US troops in both Syria and Iraq, partly in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip.

West Asia’s new reality

Between the rules of engagement that preceded the events of 7 October and those that followed the targeting of US bases, significant changes have occurred, especially after Iraqi resistance operations showcased the vulnerabilities of the American deterrence strategy. 

The illegal US bases have been exposed as unsafe, not only in Syria and Iraq but also extending to Jordan. The results of the resistance operations can be summarized as follows:

The Axis has successfully established and strengthened its ground presence in areas Washington once viewed as its own stomping ground and has achieved a de facto truce that benefits long-term resistance goals across military, economic, and political domains. 

Consequently, resistance troops are now more effectively pursuing the remnants of US-backed ISIS cells within the depths of the Syrian Desert. These terror cells, though engaged in continuous disruptive operations, are no longer seen as posing a strategic threat.

The Axis’ efforts can also now more effectively concentrate on the main front, against Israel, in support of the Palestinian resistance there. The rules of engagement with the US have been reinforced and are poised for further development in future stages, with plans to pose a more formidable challenge to the US presence across West Asia

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