Besides the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces operations with U.S. coalition support to capture the Islamic State's de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa, the other major hot-spot to watch at the moment in Syria is the Syrian desert border area between Iraq and Syria. As the Islamic State continues to lose ground in Syria, it is apparent that there is a scramble to take the territory, particularly as the fighting shifts eastwards towards the border with Iraq. For the Syrian regime and its allies, the eastern regions are valuable for multiple reasons. Economically speaking, for example, there are valuable oil and gas resources, as well as agricultural assets and the prospect of opening or reopening important trade routes like the highway between Baghdad and Damascus. It is far more than mere symbolism, therefore, that the Syrian regime has worked to maintain its currently besieged outposts in Deir az-Zor province. The idea of coordinating with any available Iraqi forces to regain control of the eastern border areas has also long been on the table well, as when the commander for Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidin, a Syrian Hezbollah group fighting in the area, inquired with me in the autumn of last year about the territorial control situation in the eastern border areas, hoping he could arrange coordination with Iraqi forces.
Of more concern to the U.S. government is the fear that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is trying to use the current campaign pushing eastwards to connect territorial holdings of militia client groups in Iraq and Syria, thus re-developing a land route for the IRGC stretching from Iran to Lebanon that existed before the war, only one in which the Iranians now have much more of a free hand in light of the rise of its militia clients and their prominence in maintaining security in these zones. For its own part, the U.S., working with Jordan, has trained small Syrian rebel forces to push against the Islamic State in the Syrian desert. These rebels, at least some of whom are remnants of the Deir az-Zor insurgency that was destroyed by the Islamic State by the summer of 2014 and were given new training and equipment on the basis of only fighting the Islamic State, have been able to capture some territory from the Islamic State- most notably the al-Tanf crossing between Iraq and Syria- but are unlikely to develop the capability to take the fight to the Islamic State's strongholds inside Deir az-Zor province.
Reinforcing the U.S. concerns regarding Iranian designs is the fact that a number of pro-Iranian militia groups are participating in the eastern push. While some U.S. airstrikes have been conducted in a bid to warn off these forces from al-Tanf in particular, there may in fact be a bigger strategic loss for the U.S. even if those groups do not capture the al-Tanf crossing itself. As of yesterday, reports have emerged that these forces have taken a substantial portion of territory to the north and northeast of al-Tanf along the Syria-Iraq border, effectively blocking any further advances for U.S. client forces stationed in al-Tanf. The map below should help illustrate this picture better. Note for Syria, red= regime and allies, blue= Syrian rebels, black= Islamic State and green= Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
To help shed further light on these matters, I interviewed Mustafa al-Yasiri, who is the assistant Syria portfolio official for the Iraqi Shi'i militia group Saraya al-Jihad (The Jihad Brigades), the military wing for the Jihad and Development Movement in Iraq. Saraya al-Jihad has been closely intertwined with Liwa al-Muntazar (The Expected One's Brigade, a reference to the Imam al-Mahdi in Shi'i Islam), which has also functioned as a military wing for the Jihad and Development Movement but has more recently taken to using instead the designation as the 7th brigade of al-Hashd al-Sha'abi (Popular Mobilization) forces in Iraq. According to Mustafa al-Yasiri himself, Liwa al-Muntazar has separated from the Jihad and Development Movement.
The Jihad and Development Movement falls within the broader network of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). Some personalities in ISCI, such as Ammar al-Hakim, who leads his own militia network called Saraya Ashura' (The Ashura' Brigades), represent a more nationalist and independent line. The Jihad and Development Movement, however, is more closely aligned with Iran. Indeed, the fact that Saraya al-Jihad participates in the Syria fighting at all is illustrative of this point, as Shi'i militancy in Syria to support the Assad regime represents an effort organized by Iran.
Below is my interview with Mustafa al-Yasiri conducted overnight, slightly edited and reordered for clarity. Note the interview, conducted in Arabic, is done using the necessary vocabulary in order to understand better the aims and strategy at work here. For the reader's reference:
- 'Martyrs': fallen fighters.
- Da'esh: Derogatory Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
- 'Liberating': capturing a place.
- Marja'iya: The religious leadership.
- 'The blessed fatwa': Ayatollah Sistani's call for Iraqis to join and aid the security forces in defending Iraq after the fall of Mosul in June 2014. This call is conventionally taken as the blessing for the establishment of al-Hashd al-Sha'abi. In reality though the foundations were laid before it by then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is at present one of the main political figures in Iraq aligned with Iran. It is also important to note that while many new groups were created as part of al-Hashd al-Sha'abi phenomenon, many other groups that emerged with clearer media/social media profiles have older roots.
- al-Hashd al-Muqaddas: 'The Sanctified Hashd.' Another term for al-Hashd al-Sha'abi in light of Sistani's fatwa.
- 'Zionist entity': Israel
- 'Islamic Resistance': a moniker most commonly used by Iranian client/Iranian supported militia factions in the region, reflecting their alignment with the wider Iranian-led 'resistance' axis in the Middle East, standing in sharpest contrast with Saudi Arabia.
- 'Jihadist work': al-amal al-jihadi, in Arabic. Religious militant activity.
- 'Mujahid': holy warrior/one who wages jihad.
Aymenn: Could you tell me a little about your biography and life in jihadist work?
Mustafa: Concerning my life and my jihadist work, I hail from a mujahid family that fought the bygone Saddamist regime. During Saddam's rule we gave forth martyrs in that time. I heeded the call of the religious marja'iya in Najaf so with the issuing of the blessed fatwa I was with Saraya al-Jihad in Iraq. I participated in the operations to liberate al-Latifiya, al-Yusufiya, al-Dabitiya, Jurf al-Sakhr, Balad, Makishifa, al-Zalaya, al-Dhulu'iya, Jalula', Tikrit, al-Awja, Fallujah, Saqlawiya and a little of the Mosul operations. And don't forget Samarra', al-Ishaqi, al-Tharthar, al-Dawr, al-Alam and Baiji.
Aymenn: So you weren't with Jaysh al-Mahdi for example during the days of the U.S. occupation?
Mustafa: No, I was not affiliated with Jaysh al-Mahdi. Our work against the occupation was in our name.
Aymenn: Could you clarify when Saraya al-Jihad was established exactly?
Mustafa: Saraya al-Jihad was established in 1983 in the name of Harakat Hezbollah [The Hezbollah Movement].
Aymenn: I see. And it fought the U.S. occupation as well after the bringing down of the Saddam regime.
Mustafa: There were no big operations.
Aymenn: True, like mortar rounds and these things.
Mustafa: More or less.
Aymenn: Can I ask when the Saraya al-Jihad forces entered Syria?
Mustafa: The Saraya al-Jihad forces entered the land of Syria 9 months ago.
Aymenn: But until now there was no media publicising about the matter, right?
Mustafa: No brother, all know that Saraya al-Jihad is a resistance faction present in Syria.
Aymenn: In which areas in Syria has Saraya al-Jihad fought? For example liberating Aleppo city?
Mustafa: It was present in Aleppo but now participating in the operations to liberate the borders, specifically the al-Tanf area.
Aymenn: Yes. How many martyrs does Saraya al-Jihad have in Syria in the operations against the rebels and Da'esh?
Mustafa: One martyr.
Aymenn: I see. Can you explain in detail what is the aim of the operations in the al-Tanf area exactly?
Mustafa: The aim of the operations is for us to limit the enemy to specific areas, cut off the reinforcements from them, and connect with our brothers of al-Hashd al-Sha'abi al-Muqaddas and the Iraqi army on the Iraqi borders to secure the borders.
Aymenn: But the factions of al-Hashd al-Muqaddas are far away in Ninawa province on the Syria borders, right?
Mustafa: No brother, correct your information. The al-Ba'aj area has been seized by the Iraqi forces and al-Hashd al-Sha'abi and this area is on the borders with Syria.
Aymenn: True, but I meant that al-Ba'aj is far from al-Tanf.
Mustafa: I told you the aim of the operations is to advance to the borders.
Aymenn: Yes. With regards to the 'enemy', your meaning is the Americans and Da'esh?
Mustafa: Da'esh and whosoever supports and finances them. All who help Da'esh financially, militarily or logistically is among the enemy.
Aymenn: Yes. I meant that the Americans are among those who help Da'esh, right?
Mustafa: Of course, and the evidence is the repeated airstrikes helping Da'esh against the Syrian Arab Army and the resistance.
Aymenn: It is said in the media many times that the ultimate aim of these operations on the borders is establishing a land route from Iran to Lebanon to strengthen the resistance axis. What is your opinion on this talk?
Mustafa: There is no truth to what is spread as rumour. The main aim is to destroy Da'esh.
Aymenn: Yes. But is it possible that there is an aim in the future after totally defeating Da'esh to recover the land route to strengthen the resistance axis against the Zionist entity?
Mustafa: Of course projects and aims are put in place to avoid any crisis or to take into account any enemy with new names.
Aymenn: Currently the Americans are targeting the resistance factions in al-Tanf with air strikes. If these strikes continue, will it be necessary to target American soldiers in Iraq?
Mustafa: No, the response has been present in the area and the American strike was responded with a strike.
Aymenn: Yes, so the battle between the Americans and the resistance factions will be in al-Tanf.
Mustafa: If the Americans want it to be a battle, we are prepared. As for the American strikes, they are a warning to the resistance against approaching their areas.
Aymenn: In addition to the Saraya al-Jihad forces, which other factions of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq are participating in the al-Tanf operations?
Mustafa: All factions of the resistance present in Syria.
Aymenn: But at present which factions are they exactly?
Mustafa: Our brothers in the movements: al-Nujaba', Kata'ib Hezbollah, Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada', Ansar Allah al-Awfiya', Kata'ib al-Imam Ali, al-Abdal, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq. And we: Saraya al-Jihad.
Aymenn: After liberating al-Tanf, will the advance be towards Deir az-Zor?
Mustafa: It has not been specified till now.
Aymenn: Thanks for the interview brother. Can you clarify that you are presently in Syria?
Mustafa: Yes, in Syria presently.
Update (22 August 2017): For my latest thinking on the supposed Iranian 'land-route' and how seriously it should be taken, see my piece on the issue for the American Spectator.