US and Iran edge closer to confrontation in Syria

A US-backed anti-government Syrian fighter from Maghaweer al-Thawra (left) and an American soldier take their position at the Syrian-Iraqi crossing border point of Al-Tanf, south Syria on May 23, 2017. (Hammurabi's Justice News via AP)
Updated 26 May 2017

US and Iran edge closer to confrontation in Syria

WASHINGTON: The six-year cold peace that the US and Iran have operationally maintained in Syria could be approaching an end as their rival strategies collide in the east and south of Syria.
This silent truce between US and Iran effectively broke on May 18 when the US-led coalition carried out its first airstrike against an Iranian proxy group near the base of Al-Tanf, close to Syria’s border with Iraq and Jordan.
The base hosts US advisers and local forces that Washington is training in its battle to take back Daesh-held territory. But the strike, experts agreed, is a harbinger of a period of more confrontation between US and Iran as their agendas seem bound to clash in a post-Daesh Syria.

Fight for geopolitics and territory
In a briefing from the US Defense Department on Wednesday, Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian defined the May 18 strike as a move to protect pro-US forces. “First thing I would say is I’m concerned about any threat to our forces on the ground,” he said.
Harrigian did not apologize or shy away from further action against Iranian proxies if they become a threat to the US-trained forces. “I’m just going to reiterate the fact that we will protect our forces... we will do what it takes to ensure that our ground forces, if they’re threatened, we’re going to take the necessary action,” he said.
The operational dynamics on the ground in Syria are inching Tehran and Washington closer to a confrontation said Nicholas A. Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington.
“The IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) is running Iranian foreign policy toward Syria, and the IRGC is acutely aware that building US military presence in southern and eastern Syria would take significant territory out of Assad’s reach,” Heras told Arab News.
In essence “Iran does not want Assad to be left with nothing to claim on the monopoly board that is Eastern Syria,” which explains the recent buildup of pro-Iran militias in the area according to the expert.
Faysal Itani, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told Arab News the US strike was “simply a move by Washington to enforce basic principles that it will protect its forces and local allies, including in areas where there are ongoing offensive operations.”
In the bigger scheme, the fight is one for leverage and territory, explained Heras. “The Trump administration is actively looking for options to utilize the counter-Daesh campaign, and the territory conquered by US-backed (forces), to prevent Iran from achieving its objectives in Syria.” Heras added that “the US wants to build maximum leverage on Bashar Assad and his friends Iran and Russia, and the best way to do that now is by capturing and ruling territory in eastern Syria.”

Ripe for escalation?
Itani defined the US and Iran as “adversaries in a zero-sum geopolitical competition,” but with limitations in Syria. In this latest development Itani said “the US has an anti-Daesh mission, and fighting it appropriately means taking steps that infringe on Iranian territorial and political interests in Syria.”
Another clash of interest is in Iran’s fear “that the US will support a large Saudi and GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) stabilization mission in eastern Syria,” said Heras. The expert added that “Iran sees the US counter-Daesh campaign as a tool for the Arab Gulf countries to enter Syria in lockstep with the United States.”
Both Heras and Itani agreed that Iran will continue to try to test US limits and its growing zone of influence in eastern Syria. “Escalation is ripe, and the US would most likely win that encounter,” said Heras. Itani cautioned that despite Washington’s military superiority “Iran can complicate things tremendously in Syria and elsewhere.”

Britain’s William and Kate begin ‘complex’ tour of Pakistan

Updated 13 min 52 sec ago

Britain’s William and Kate begin ‘complex’ tour of Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: Prince William and his wife Kate arrived in Pakistan to a red carpet welcome late Monday for their “most complex” tour to date, with Islamabad eager to tout improved security after years of violent militancy.
The couple — the Duchess of Cambridge in a sea-green shalwar kameez, and the Duke in a dark suit — were greeted by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and presented with flowers after they landed in a British government plane at a military base in Rawalpindi, the garrison city adjacent to the capital Islamabad, state television images showed.



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Details of the five-day visit are being kept under wraps. Security is expected to be tight for the couple’s first official trip to Pakistan, and the first visit by a British royal since William’s father Charles and his wife Camilla came in 2006.
In addition to Islamabad they are set to visit the ancient Mughal capital of Lahore, as well as the mountainous north and the region near the border with Afghanistan in the west.
Kensington Palace has called the trip “the most complex tour undertaken by The Duke and Duchess to date, given the logistical and security considerations.”
The couple are also expected to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was close friends with William’s mother, the late Princess Diana.
“I’ve always been struck by the warmth in Pakistan toward the Royal Family,” British High Commissioner Thomas Drew said in a video published to Twitter late Sunday.

Britain's William and Catherine, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, are welcomed as they arrive in Islamabad, Pakistan. (Reuters)

The couple’s program will pay respect to Britain’s historic relationship with Pakistan, once part of colonial India, he said.
“But it will focus largely on showcasing Pakistan as it is today, a dynamic, aspirational, and forward-looking nation,” Drew continued.
They are expected to see Pakistan’s efforts to combat climate change and learn about the “complex security” of the region, among other issues, a statement from Kensington Palace said earlier this month.
Pakistan has waged a long battle with militancy which has seen tens of thousands of people killed in the past 15 or so years.
Charles’ and Camilla’s 2006 trip was tainted when they were forced to pull out of a visit to Peshawar over safety concerns after the military launched an airstrike on a religious school that killed 80 people.
But security has improved dramatically since the army intensified a crackdown on militant groups in 2015, with several countries changing their travel warnings for Pakistan as a result, and Islamabad eager to promote both tourism and foreign investment.
There are promising signs, such as the British Airways return earlier this year after more than a decade, and the slow but steady revival of international cricket.
Analysts have long warned that Pakistan is not yet getting to the root causes of extremism, however, and militants retain the ability to carry out attacks, including in urban areas.
Moments before the couple’s arrival Monday, Qureshi used televised comments to invoke the memory of Diana, who charmed Pakistanis when she visited in her official capacity in 1991.
She also made several private visits in later years to help Khan — then a cricketer-turned-opposition politician married to her friend Jemima — raise money for a cancer hospital in Lahore.
“She is held in very high esteem in Pakistan... We are happy that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are now coming,” Qureshi said.
The visit showed that Pakistan has come out of “difficult times,” he added.
Pakistan was carved out of colonial India to become independent from Britain in 1947, creating an Islamic Republic for the subcontinent’s Muslims.
Britain is home to more than a million people of Pakistani origin, making it the largest Pakistani diaspora community in Europe.