MESOP NEWS Syria Daily: The Looming Battle in the Eastern Desert

By Scott Lucas – eaworldview – May 30, 2017 – A battle between pro-Assad forces in the desert in eastern Syria drew closer on Sunday, amid advances on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.

The pro-Assad forces — including Hezbollah and Iranian-led Iraqi militia — took another 100 square km (39 sq miles) from the Islamic State in the sparsely-populated Badia region over the weekend, following gains of more than 1,000 square km (386 sq miles) during the week. The gains, which began as ISIS withdrew from areas southwest of the city of Palmyra, include the country’s phosphate mines — coveted by Iran for exploitation — and the highway linking Damascus to Palmyra.

Meanwhile, Free Syrian Army units supported and trained by US special forces reopened the Tanf border crossing with Iraq.Last week the US carried out its first airstrikes inside Syria against pro-Assad ground forces, striking a convoy with Hezbollah and Iraqi militia advancing towards the FSA and the US special forces in the Tanf base. A tank and engineering trucks, planning to create a forward position, were reportedly destroyed.However, the rebels expressed frustration with the Americans, who have insisted that the FSA fight the Islamic State and avoid any confrontation with regime forces.

“The coalition is a partner of ours in the war against Daesh, but when it comes to fighting the regime and its foreign militias, [the coalition] is not our partner,” FSA spokesman al-Baraa Fares said on Monday.

A US military spokesman avoided any reference to the situation with the pro-Assad forces in an e-mail answer to Syria Direct, “Coalition forces have operated for many months training and advising vetted partner forces in the fight against ISIS.”

But in a second e-mail statement, the US military did indicate that it would carry out further attacks on the regime military and its allies if they entered a “55 km (34 mile) radius around the area in which coalition and partnered forces are operating near al-Tanf”. Pro-opposition activists on social media showed photographs of leaflets which purportedly reinforced the message.The FSA indicated that it will not be limited to that zone, as it announced “Operation Badia Volcano”. Spokesman al-Baraa Fares said, “The FSA will fight the regime and its militias…and in the coming days, we will have an even larger role in fighting the regime.”

Iranian-Backed Iraqi Militia Advance on Iraq Side of Border

In a further portent of a possible confrontation, Iranian-backed Shia militias have advanced against the Islamic State in recent days on the Iraqi side of the border.The Popular Mobilization Units said on Sunday that they had taken several more villages from ISIS. A militia commander said the forces were now 20 to 25 km (12.5 to 15.5 miles) from the border, west of the Iraqi town of Tal Afar.The advance raises the prospect of a ground route for the supply of Iranian weapons to the pro-Assad forces, although this would depend on the regime military and its allies making further progress on the Syrian side — and the claiming of a border crossing such as Tanf.

Iran has propped up the Assad regime and its military since 2011 with the supply of weapons via aircraft.