Jad Yateem: How US is Gaining Control Over the Syrian- Iraqi Borders – Mapping The Possible Scenarios

Author: Jad Yateem

September 2023

In 2014, the Iranian regime proudly asserted its control over four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Sanaa.  However, a seismic shift occurred over the next five years, shaking the IRGC’s foothold in the region. Popular uprisings, particularly in Beirut and Baghdad, eroded Iran’s influence in Syria, allowing Russia to capitalize on the situation. Additionally, Iran faced challenges in Yemen.

The landscape changed further in early 2020 when US forces targeted and killed IRGC-Quds Force Commander General Kassem Suleimani and PMF high commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, effectively weakening Iran’s hold over PMF factions that were no longer under unified command, and diminishing the IRGC’s power.

Now, almost nine years later in 2023, this Iranian claim of controlling Arab capitals has significantly diminished. Syria serves as a direct example of this shrinking influence.

Earlier this year, the United States initiated plans to establish control over the Syrian-Iraqi border. This move carries the potential for a direct showdown with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its affiliated militias. It also poses a significant challenge to Iranian influence and disrupts the corridor facilitating the transportation of missiles and drugs from Tehran to Beirut.

The latest clashes between SDF, HAT and Asayish in particular, with Deir Ez-Zour Military Council is within this context, and not just an Arab- Kurdish struggle.  

Syria: An Imminent US-Iran Military Standoff

On March 4, 2023, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley made an unannounced visit to Syria, marking his first visit to the country as the top US general. Officially, the visit aimed to assess US anti-terrorism efforts in Syria. 

However,during his visit, Milley discussed plans with US generals to launch a military operation to control the Syrian-Iraqi border. The operation aims to connect the Al-Tanf area with Al-Bukamal city/crossing in Syria. The US didn’t share these intentions with key allies, including SDF commanders and PYD leaders.

Such an operation was unexpected, as it would mean a direct military confrontation with the IRGC and its militias in Syria. However, several months later, pro-Russia and pro-IRGC regime forces and militias, along with the SDF, started sending reinforcements to the area. None of the mentioned sides have officially acknowledged these reinforcements as preparation for a military escalation. And SDF cleared that its reinforcements are defensive and not part of any operation against the Iranians.

Map of Reinforcements


As the core element of the International Coalition against ISIS in Syria, the US concentrated its preparations and reinforcements in the Al-Tanf Base. Apart from this, US forces from Al-Tanf and Ain Al-Assad bases in Syria and Iraq respectively, are congregating in the Anbar Province near the Al-Qaim crossing, facing Syria’s Al-Bukamal crossing.

An additional force called the „Syrian Free Army” is stationed at Al-Tanf, poised to participate in the operation. However, given their limited numbers (around 400 fighters), the US is unlikely to solely rely on them.

In light of Turkey’s recent positive engagement with NATO and the United States, Turkey-backed factions from the „National Army” relocated from Aleppo to Al-Tanf base.

However, it appears that Turkey has taken on a more active role in this operation. This involves recruiting Syrians from Turkish-controlled Northern Syria, with private contracts, and subsequently deploying them to the Al-Tanf to be part of any possible operation. 

However, the primary support for the United States in this endeavor appears to be coming from Arab tribes on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi borders. 

In Iraq, Sunni Arab clans in the Anbar province have been armed and organized by the U.S. military, effectively gaining control over the extensive desert border area with Syria.

Similar agreements have been established by the United States with Syrian clans on the opposing side of the Syrian desert.


Key reinforcements for pro-IRGC Iranian militias, including pro-Iran regime forces, are concentrated in “The Seven Villages” situated north of the Euphrates river in the DZ countryside. These villages including Al-Hussainiyah, Al-Salhiyyah, Hatlah, Marrat, Al-Tabiyyah Jazeerah, Mazloum, and Khsham, have witnessed heightened IRGC presence through local Syrian militias.


Russian military presence has also surged with recent reinforcements. Russian positions overlap with Iranian ones in places like Hatlah, where “The Russian Reconciliation Center” is based and protected by Russian Military Police. 

Additionally, Russia has military positions in Khsham, along with pro-IRGC militias.

Russians have almost full control in Marrat. While “Russian Military Police” is only deployed in Hatlah, the Russian military presence in Khsham and Marrat is represented by the “5th Corps.”


Al-Ezba and Al-Maamel (Factories) Roundabout area were the main assembly centers for the US-Backed SDF, including more than 500 armored vehicles. These reinforcements were partially stationed there, while the rest deployed to the eastern outskirts of Deir Ez-Zor province. The main villages that witnessed heavy deployments for SDF are Al-Khabour river’s villages, in particular Al-Suwar, Al-Secher, and Al-Busayrah, in addition to Theban.

SDF sent reinforcements of highly trained Kurdish units, in particular, the special forces (HAT) and Internal Security Forces (Asayish) to bolster their defense.

These forces were heavily deployed in the eastern countryside of Deir Ez-Zour province facing pro-Russia and Pro-IRGC militias, forming a triangle that extends from Al-Suwar village, south to Theban, and Al-Ezba to the west facing Marrat and Al-Salhiyyah.

Military Scenarios: Anticipating the Actors’ Responses

The anticipated military operation targets the Syrian-Iraqi border between Al-Tanf and Al-Bukamal. However, given the influx of reinforcements from Iranians, Russians, and SDF around „The Seven Villages,” questions arise about the scope of the attack.

A direct assault on these villages is unlikely; rather, these reinforcements may divert SDF’s attention from the impending operation, keeping its forces busy defending their controlled areas. 

Should the US opt for an alternative attack, or include an additional attack, away from the border, Khsham village might be the target due to its strategic position.

Khsham is facing the US base in Conoco Gas Plant, and considered a focal point for the Russia-Backed 5th Corps. Wagner’s attack against the Conoco Gas Plant in 2018, was launched from Khsham itself. 

In addition to that, this village along with Al-Tabiyyah Jazeerah, are the closest to the Iraqi borders. 

But, such an action would affect the Russia-backed 5th Corps and directly challenge Russia’s interests, so SDF will not attack without a Russian greenlight. 

The main question will be: How the different actors are acting under the pressure of this possible military attack to control the borders?

The first response was represented by the latest clashes in Deir Ez-Zour (DZ) between SDF and Arab fighters. 

SDF exploited the impending escalation to limit the influence of Ahmad Al-Khabbil, commander of DZ military council of SDF, who is an Arab figure who enjoys a huge network, including regime officers, to widen his smuggling routs.

Al-Khabbil is considered by Kurdish command, and US as well as a man with connections with Iran and Syrian regime. 

It all started when the SDF were sending reinforcements. Al-Khabbil ceded control of his checkpoints, in the Eastern side of Deir Ez-Zou, to the Asayish, signifying a power shift within SDF.

After that, he and a number of his loyal men were called for a meeting in Raqqa by SDF command where they were arrested. 

Following these developments, confrontations broke out, with the SDF claiming to target regime and Iranian figures within their ranks. Notably, the clashes did not primarily involve local DZ clans, as a significant portion of the Al-Akidat tribe, led by Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Hafl, opposed Al-Khabbil and did not object to his arrest. 

While some tribal members did engage in the fight against the SDF, the primary force opposing the SDF came from the Turkey-backed „Ahrar Ash-Sharqiya” faction, dispatched from Turkish-controlled areas to SDF-controlled territories, ostensibly under the banner of „Clans’ Support (Fazaa).”

Both the SDF and Turkey seized this opportunity to eliminate rivals within their respective spheres of influence. In the broader context, the clashes served the U.S.’s strategic objective of securing the border region.

 As a result, Al-Khabbil is now under arrest, and Al-Hafl, who is considered a pro-regime figure, managed to evade regime-controlled territories. Pro-Iranian leaders and fighters have been pushed farther away from the Syrian side of the Iraqi border.

Currently, tribes on both sides, along with the SDF and American troops, exert substantial control over the Syrian-Iraqi border. 

Nevertheless, the question remains: What if the U.S. were to contemplate a direct confrontation in the future?

In this context we have 2 opposite scenarios. Both will lead to weakening the Iranian influence in Syria and the free movement of drugs and weapons from Tehran to Beirut. 

  1. Military Confrontation 

This scenario paints a picture of direct confrontation, with Iran standing its ground. 

1.1: Full Attack 

This envisages a direct clash, with Iran refusing to back down.

In this case, clashes are anticipated on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian borders. American troops would engage on both fronts, alongside pro-IRGC PMF and militias on the Syrian side. Russian intervention is unlikely unless their positions come under persistent targeting. The region would transform into a full-fledged American military battleground, making Israeli airstrikes along the border improbable.

As for the US, aligning with a single ally like the SDF could mean sacrificing another, namely the Turkey-backed „National Army.”  

As for FSA forces in Al-Tanaf they can be part of the operation in all cases, without encroaching on SDF’s areas of operation.

SDF, a well-trained and trusted ally, will play a defensive role. While they’ve maintained a stance of non-participation in any attack, their presence will thwart Iranian militias’ attempts to reinforce the border area, the primary battleground. Additionally, SDF’s positioning in Al-Baghuz, adjacent to Al-Bukamal, would impede Iranian maneuvering during the American military assault.

The involvement of the „National Army,” another allied faction, heralds a new chapter in military cooperation between Turkey and the US within Syria. Despite Turkey’s inclination to avoid confrontation with its Astana partners, joining the operation would weaken the SDF and create a ring of Turkish-backed factions surrounding Kurdish controlled territories.

The probable sequence is a US-led operation with significant participation from pro-Turkey factions, while the SDF takes on a defensive role. The feasibility of simultaneously attacking and defending their NES-controlled areas remains uncertain.

1.2: Limited Attack

The US will decide on a limited and focused attack on Al-Bukama – Qaim official crossing, and continue heavy drones’ surveillance and attacks on the desert borderline. But it goes without any doubt that the presence of US forces and allies in Al-Bukamal will put Al-Mayadin city, the capital of Iran in Syria, under direct threat in the future.  

  1. On the Brink of War

Iran seems to be orchestrating its usual tactic: hovering on the edge of war and then executing a decisive maneuver. In this scenario, a full-blown military confrontation may not unfold due to two compelling reasons:

2.1: Diplomatic Deal 

A possible avenue could be the inclusion of the Iraqi-Syrian border control issue within a larger nuclear deal framework. Iran might relinquish its positions along these borders as part of a strategic agreement. This diplomatic maneuver would avert direct military confrontation and redefine the dynamics.

2.2: Russian Intervention

Another strategy emerges where IRGC leadership, upon recognizing the impending American assault, seeks refuge in Russian intervention. Over the past year, Russia has persistently urged Iran to transfer its border positions with Iraq to Russian control, a proposition that Iran had previously ignored. 

However, this time around, Iran might consent. This act would serve as a deterrent to further US action since it’s unlikely that US forces would engage Russian counterparts. By employing this tactic, Iran aims to portray itself as having outmaneuvered the United States.

A Potential Resurgence of ISIS

In his book “When Reagan Sent in the Marines- The Invasion of Lebanon” (2019), Pultzer Prize-Winning journalist, Patrick J. Sloyan, reflects (Page 6) on the aftermath of the 1983 Beirut bombing against Marines base. Colonel Timothy J. Geraghty, commander of the besieged Marines, interpreted US President Ronald Reagan’s failure to retaliate against Iran as a “message to Damascus and Tehran” that „terrorism works.”

The question arises: Will 2023 witness the first direct Iranian-American military confrontation since 1983?

The potential operation carries profound strategic implications and has the potential to alter the trajectory of events in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, especially with Syria, and with Lebanon, and Iraq being particularly affected.

Seizing control of the crucial route connecting Syria and Iraq would effectively block the Iranian Corridor that stretches from Iran via Sunni-populated areas like Miqdadiyah (Iraq), Al-Bukamal, Qalamoun, and Qusair (Syria), all the way to Beirut (Lebanon).

This move could deliver a significant blow to the „Shia Crescent.” Whether it’s Russians or Americans who eventually control the border area, both sides would likely curtail any drug and weapon smuggling that could undermine their interests and presence, as well as their interests. 

Reflecting on recent history, the last IRGC and Hezbollah’s major military operation in February 2020 captured rebel strongholds like Maarat Al-Numan, Saraqeb, and Khan Sheikhon. However, when Iran sought to continue its advance without Russian approval, Russia permitted Turkey to deploy heavy artillery and Bayraktar drones to halt the pro-IRGC militias, whose fighters were slaughtered and thus obliged to stop their attack. 

A potential operation to dislodge Iran from the border area could weaken its military influence and potentially trigger further clashes among IRGC militias, who would lose a primary revenue source that funds their activities in Syria – drug smuggling.

However, a concern arises over the vast desert border area, challenging its control. The question looms: could the defeated side inadvertently support the resurgence of ISIS in this expansive desert expanse?