Syrian Badiah and its Importance for Parties to the Conflict

By: Ahmad Al Abdullah

Syrian Badiah plays a great role in enabling Iran to continue its war in Syria. For this reason, the US-led International Coalition is keen on capturing it after the United States of America has changed its policy as President Donald Trump called for undermining Iran’s role in the region.

Is the United States really keen on confronting the expansion of Iran?

It is not easy to answer this question as Islamic State in Iraq and Sham ISIS is trying to survive, and the interrelation of interests of regional and international powers competing to put hands on this vital part of Syria.

Main Topics

  • Geopolitical importance of Syrian Badiah
  • Strategic importance of Syrian Badiah for parties to the conflict
  • Importance of Syrian Badiah for Iran and its allies
  • The fight for land routes across Syrian Badiah
  • Tracks of the Badiah routes, objectives and obstacles
  • Demographic changes imposed by Iran in Syrian Badiah
  • The flow of human resources into Syria
  • Access for Iranian forces, militias and weapons
  • Importance of Syrian Badiah for US-led International Coalition
  • Importance of blocking routes across Syrian Badiah in the light of Iran’s security threats
  • Geopolitical importance of Syrian Badiah
  • Importance of Syrian Badiah for ISIS agenda
  • Areas of deployment of parties to the conflict in Syrian Badiah
  • Circles of conflict and consequences of battles
  • Dimensions of the conflict in the light of regional and international affiliations
  • Military dimension
  • Security dimension
  • Political dimension
  • Conclusion

Soon after the declaration of ISIS end in Eastern Euphrates, Syrian Badiah popped out on the military and political scene again. Clashes between Iran’s forces and Assad’s force on the one hand and remains of ISIS on the other hand started. In the meanwhile, Coalition forces launched a campaign against both ISIS and Iran’s militias.

The escalation by parties to the conflict has been associated with political tension between Iran and the United States of America for domination of Syrian Badiah which is strategically important for all sides. This area which neighbors all Provinces of Syria with its strategic importance can’t be ignored. Dominating Syrian Badiah is not only important for the war on terror, but also for log-term objectives of the Iranian project in the region. The Iranian threats which extend from Iraq to the Mediterranean, throughout Syria and Lebanon, can’t be disregarded by the International Coalition as Iran plans to establish the Shiite crescent through its militias deployed in this area has always been clear. 

However, the United States of America was the first to get alerted. It established a military base in Al Tanf on the border with Iraq to monitor and respond to the Iranian activities.

Thus, this study attempts to focus on the strategic importance of Syrian Badiah and draw the features of agendas of conflicting parties. This study starts with analyzing the Iranian strategy so as to understand Iran’s regional behavior which is based on political maneuver. It is important to elicit reasons for Iran’s fervent attempts to control this vital area. On the other side, the agenda of the United States is based on the need to alter Iran’s agenda, face ISIS and monitor confrontation circles in the area. All analyses done by this study aim at presenting a thorough prospective reading of the scene in the Syrian Badiah in the light of regional and international sidelining.    

Geo-political importance of Syrian Badiah

Syrian Badiah, which covers 74000 square kilometers, that is 40-57% of Syrian homeland, is a vital area. Therefore, all parties to the conflict are fervently trying to control it. This area extends from skirts of Damascus to Euphrates. It is called “Al Shami’yah”. The southern part is a desert, but the western part is called “Derit Al Shanbel” which ends with the railway between Aleppo and Damascus, known as the “Hejaz Railway”. Rainfall in this area is very low; it goes down to 127 millimeters.

The strategic importance if this area stems from its geographical diversity as it covers hills, plains and mountains beginning with eastern Kalamoun up to Palmyra mountains. Having many green valleys made the area an open reservoir of animals of all kinds which gives it economic privileges whether in time of peace or during wars.  It is the most sensitive area in the heart of the country as it is the gate to Iraq through Al Tanf border crossing. Legendary tribes like Shumar, Hadediah, Bani Khalid, Ea’nezah, Mawali, Ea’kedat live along both sides of the border between Syria and Jordan. To the southwest, the area is adjacent to Suweida Province. Palmyra is the capital city and main center in wartime and in time of peace. The main cities of this area are Al Sukhnah, Taiba, Al Kuom, Kadem, Hamemah and Twenan. The area has got oil wells, phosphate mines in Khnaifees. An oil pipeline goes through the area from Karkouk to Haifa. This pipeline was nationalized beginning of the 1970s. Later it was opened again before the Syrian Government closed it again with the beginning of the war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988). The closure was in support of Iran against Iraq.  

The so-called Persian crescent goes through this area which has the only land route, Al Tanf, that connects Iraq with Damascus, and then Beirut to the Mediterranean. This strategic border crossing is exceptionally important. Therefore, the United States of America decided to close this international route.   

In this area, there are many important military airports like Shua’irat, Al Seen, Al T 4 and Al Naseryah. These airports are used by Assad’s Regime in the ongoing war in Syria. It is a geographical joint between Syria and Iraq, and it is the guarantee for integrity of the Syrian homeland. Controlling this area will threat the presence of Iranian militias in the area and in Syria in general. If this area is controlled by the International Coalition, it will rebuke the Iranians and mitigate their options.  

It is worth mentioning that Tehran ordered its militias to go deep in this area following the collapse of ISIS. The aim was to put hands on Al Tanf border crossing as an introduction to full control of Al Badiah as a geographically and strategically important area. For all these reasons, the United States of America positioned its forces in Al Tanf border crossing ever since 2014 after expelling ISIS from the area. It was an early anticipatory step made by the United States to abort any Iranian attempt to make the area a passage for its militias. 

Strategic importance of Syrian Badiah for parties to the conflict

Syrian Badiah plays a great role in empowering parties to the conflict to continue the war. Therefore, each party attempts to get it first. During years of war, none of these parties managed to have full control of it. The US-led International Coalition, Russian alliance with its military arms like Republican Guards and sectarian militias, Assad’s forces and ISIS have been competing to get the upper hand in this area. The importance of this area can be understood if we review its importance for each party.

Importance of Syrian Badiah for Iran and its allies

Iranian domination extends like a bow from Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. This domination started to escalate with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. It accelerated when Arabic Spring Started, especially in Syria and Yemen. Iran wanted to be a regional super power. Arabic spring was a chance for Iran to terminate its isolation and sanctions, so it interfered with its military to protect Assad’s Regime   right from the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011. Its second aim was to expel danger from its routes to the Mediterranean and connection with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The fight for land routes across Syrian Badiah

As the war in Syria continued, Iran was aware of the fact that the United States wanted to prevent any Iranian access to Syria across Iraq. Therefore, it pushed its forces to seize parts of the border to the northeast of Al Waleed Border Crossing. With Iraq. It occupied the Iraqi military base TH3 prior to capturing large areas of the Syrian Badiah. By this, Iran’s forces surrounded Al Tanf military base from all sides. It was clear that Iran wanted to have its own land routes from Tehran to Mediterranean. Qasem Sulaimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps SRGC was in charge of implementing the Iranian project and vision. He laid the foundation for this strategy. Iranian forces had to travel 800 miles across valleys of Euphrates and Tigris together with large areas of the vast desert in Iraq and Syria.   

Tracks of the routes, objectives and obstacles

Land routes go deep in the Iraqi territories to the south of Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq, and then to Al Anbar desert through Falujah and Rumadi to the Syrian border. This route goes on to Al Sukhnah and then to Damascus. But Iran was disrupted by ISIS pockets in the Syrian Badiah. ISIS fierce resistance and the American military base in Al Tanf have been the most troublesome obstacles to Iran’s access to the Mediterranean. So, the Iranian project is almost aborted.

The importance of this route for Iran is clear as it has been working on many objectives:

  • Demographic changes imposed by Iran in Syrian Badiah

Iran and Hezbollah had t to make hostile demographic changes in some areas through pushing Sunnis northwards to Idlib or through the border with Lebanon. Syrian and non-Syrian Shiites were brought to settle in the areas adjacent to the Persian land routes. Al Bukamal, Al Sukhnah and Palmyra, which surround the Persian route, are all taken over by Shiite militias

  • The flow of human resources into Syria

Iran reinforced its logistic access through establishing the road between Tehran and Damascus and another route that goes in the north of Iraq to Damascus, Latakia and Lebanon. It was a turning point in the Iranian project as these roads will facilitate the movement of goods to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iranian goods will have privileges over other countries due to less transportation cost and easy access.  

  • Access for Iranian forces, Militias and weapons

Iran used Al Tanf crossing as a passage for trucks carrying weapons to Hezbollah in 2011. As the war got fiercer, Iran had to find an alternative route under its control to ensure access of its forces and militias and weaponry through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This route was intended to be away from international monitoring in seaports and traditional routes. This route has been important to compensate the loss in weapons and immunities as the war continued. The Shiite crescent is necessary for smuggling weapons to Hezbollah and other Iranian militias working in Syrian territories.    

Importance of Syrian Badiah for US-led International Coalition

The importance of Syrian Badiah for the United States lies in the seize of Al Tanf Border Crossing which was turned into a military base in 2017 after liberating it with the participation of Syria’s New Army. This army changed its name into “commandos of the Revolution Army”. Al Tanf is located on the strategic highway that connects Assad’s regime with its supporters in Tehran. The liberation of this area aimed at disrupting the strategic route of Iran’s forces and militias. It also serves the international interests in undermining the role of Iran. This can be outlined in the following objectives:

  • Importance of blocking routes across Syrian Badiah in the light of Iran’s security threats

The US-led Coalition got aware of the threats of Iran resulting from its increasing dominance in Syria where Shiite Militias occupy most areas of the country, and Lebanon where Hezbollah Militia abducts all State Institutions. This association between Iran’s terrorist practices and these militias constitutes a threat to peace and stability in the whole region. The existence of Iran’s militias in Syrian Badiah is a threat to US interests. Therefore, the United States was finally alerted to mitigate Iran’s influence by blocking its routes across Syrian Badiah. More US air strikes have been launched from Al Tanf military base on the area along the border with Iraq.

According to local resources, the United States of America attacked 25 Iranian tanks and armored vehicles in may 2017. These tanks and armored vehicles were trying to approach the military base in Al Tanf. Warplanes of the US-led Coalition also targeted a military procession of Assad’s Regime and its Iranian allies in Al Shahmy area on the highway between Baghdad and Damascus. 22 militia fighters were killed and other 12 ones were injured in US air strikes.

Geopolitical importance of Syrian Badiah

The collapse of ISIS and its retreat to small scattered pockets in the Badiah have revealed the geopolitical dimension of US and Iranian objectives which go beyond the claim of war on terrorism. Both countries are competing over dominance in this area. Iran has got 40 locations for its militias along all routes in the Badiah, whereas USA has deeply footed its forces in Al Tanf Base. Thus, Syrian Badiah has turned into an open area for all possible conflicts. ISIS, for example, attacked Assad’s Forces and their allies to open a passage to ISIS largest and last pocket to the west of Euphrates i.e. 4000 square kilometers. 

Interests of all countries involved in the conflict have been jumbled in this strategically important area which is full of natural sources. It has become an arena for conflicting interests, an area for determining many international disputes. This conflict of interests is liable to escalate in the upcoming stage. It might develop into an open conflict with the aim of eradicating Iran’s arms in the region. This objective has become a joint concern for most parties involved in the war in Syria. This international consensus has been best represented by the green light given to Israel to target all Iranian positions in different areas of Syria. 

The recent campaign against Iran’s arms in Syria has remarkably escalated, and it is expected to have dramatic changes. This escalation might become less if the United States continues its economic suffocation and accurate targeting of Iran’s arms in Syria. This means, according to US officials, that the Iranian Regime might collapse due to internal problems, exhausting the country’s economy and targeting the regional existence of Iran.

Importance of Syrian Badiah for ISIS agenda

Although ISIS was terminated in its last pocket in Al Baghouz village in the countryside of Deir Ezour, it doesn’t mean that this organization is done once for all. It has been in Syrian Badiah since 2014. The term “Security enclaves” has been recently circulated by spokesmen of ISIS as a reference to the new strategy of ISIS. Some tribal sources say that since 2017, ISIS established closed security enclaves in Badiah like in Al Beshry mountain to the furthest south of Al Rakkah. And Al Dafenah in the southwest of Deir Ezour. They are also spread in the desert between Al Sukhneh and Palmyra, T2 station and Faidhah Ben Mwainea’ to the north.

This area has got rugged terrains that allow ISIS find enclaves in valleys and natural caves. In Al Beshri mountain, there a phosphate mine that can be used as a warehouse or training camp. It is a vast area known for sandy storms that can facilitate camouflage and remove any traces of movement overland. ISIS militants usually move freely at night with their flags over their vehicles. 4-wheel-drive trucks that were bought or looted between 2014-2017 carry ammunitions and logistics.      

ISIS fighters have got skills in acclimatizing with the desert life. The remaining ones who belong to the Badiah sector are the hard nucellus of ISIS. Every now and then some new fighters join the organization especially those who fled the border with Lebanon or those who were based around Damascus after the reconciliation with Hezbollah that was imposed by the Russians during the last few months of 2017. 

There are about 1000 ISIS fighters in the nomadic areas in the east of Syria. Some 800 ones are based to the east of Suweida desert. After their defeats in Iraq and east of Euphrates, many ISIS militants have joined the remaining pockets which are the last chance for this organization to recollect itself looking forward to a new start.

Areas of deployment of parties to the conflict in Syrian Badiah

High Iranian commanders have done their best to seize the Syrian Badiah with the help of some other external powers like Hezbollah of Lebanon and other local Shiite militias sponsored by Iran. Depending on these external militias aims at reducing losses in its formal forces. About 18000 Afghani Shiites, 3000-4000 Pakistani Shiites and some other Durzi and Christian militias were asked to settle around the land routes already discussed. T2, T3 Gharab Mountain, Al Sukhnah, Alianiah, Al Waleed Border crossing with the air base H3 inside Iraqi Territories facing Al Tanf Syrian border crossing are all attended by Pro-Iran militias like Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps IRGC, Hezbollah of Lebanon, Afghani Shiite militias. They are there to help Assad’s Forces in Syrian Badiah.

As for ISIS, it is based in rugged terrains like Beshry Mountain, Dhahek Mountain, Roudh Al Wahsh, Tal Asfar and some locations near Al Tanf. ISIS fighters are also based along the Euphrates nomadic areas, from Bukammal to Deir Ezour. There are spaces between locations of ISIS and locations of Iran’s militias which occupy the right bank of Euphrates. 1000 ISIS affiliates are in Eastern desert of Syria in addition to other 800 ones in the Syrian Badiah. Following the defeat of ISIS to the east of Euphrates and in Iraq, many fans joined the remaining pockets in the Syrian Badiah.

Americans are based in Al Tanf where borders of Iraq, Jordan and Syria meet. This American base, which was established in 2014, is surrounded by many Iranian Militias. Some diplomatic resources in London said that one of the proposals was to bargain Al Tanf with the presence of all Iran’s militias in Syria. USA showed its interest in keeping this military base to monitor the withdrawal of Iran’s Militias from Syria.    

Circles of conflict and consequences of battles

Battles in Syrian Badiah are imposed by military events in a vast area. These battles are associated with what is happening in eastern desert of Suweida or Al Tanf, Al Sukhnah and Shemri Mountain. Parties are fervently attempting to keep their presence in the area. After ISIS was just defending its positions, it started to develop its attacks. It depends on battles that can exhaust all opponents in the area. On 19 April 2019, 20 of Assad’s Forces and Iranian militias were killed as it was reported by A’maq news agency. They were killed in an ambush near Al Beshri Mountain to the east of Al Sukhana near Homs. The ambush took place while Assad’s forces were tracing some groups of ISIS following an attack one day before. Clashes continued for 24 hours.  

3 officers and 17 militants were killed by ISIS in the ambush. 4 military vehicles were destroyed and seven 4-drive- trucks were looted with two self-propelled machine guns. Pro-Assad Facebook Accounts said that a group was disconnected. The group which is part of Corps 18 of the Syrian Army was led by Brigadier Nader Muneer Saker. Iran, on its turn, launched many attacks around Damascus-Tehran highway to reinforce is control of the road. Iranian militias approached Al Tanf Base, but they retreated because of US air strikes. ISIS took the opportunity to attack Assad’s and Iran’s militias and besiege these forces in isolated pockets extending from Sukhnah in the south to Beshri Mountain in the north. 

ISIS advanced in many locations to the north of Sukhneh simultaneously with their advance in the south, in T2. In case ISIS groups are connected with each other, they will besiege Iranian militias just like what happened on the highway between Baghdad and Damascus. These areas have become ISIS enclave after losing eastern Euphrates. ISIS fighters are grasping to control the area for many reasons:

  1. Taking military action in the form of ambushes, raid-and-withdraw operations. This technique is used because of the flexibility and swiftness of ISIS fighters with their four-wheel-drive vehicles and different weapons. They can move in any direction and in all circumstances in a vast desert area. They followed these tactics in Bukammal where Hezbollah Militia is based. Targeting Hezbollah and Assad’s forces has created a situation that serves the interests of ISIS strategy which is based on exhausting, military capabilities of Iran’s and Assad’s militias which lose tens of lives every day.
  2. ISIS has escalated its military operations against the Russians in Syrian Badiah. This will deepen the disputes between Russians and Iranians, especially after Russian soldiers and officers were killed. Iran’s militias are said to have colluded with ISIS to enhance ISIS expansion in Syrian Badiah.  
  3. For Russians, ISIS is important for undermining the presence of Iran’s militias. As for Iranians, the presence of ISIS is important to justify their dominance in the area. Both Russians and Iranians have been involved in this collusion. Therefore, Russian warplanes don’t even fly over ISIS areas.

Dimensions of the conflict in the light of regional and international affiliations

The war in Syrian Badiah went through a turning point when military efforts were transferred from the western areas of Syria to the vital areas of Syrian Badiah. The conflict of interests of international players causes much concern for regional and international players. After this area had changed into an arena for ceaseless conflicts, military factions supported by the United States and those affiliated with Iran have been conflicting over control of the Badiah highway connecting Baghdad with Damascus.

Iran, which reinforced its forces near Al Tanf, wants to keep persistent threats in the area and maintain access through Iraqi-Syrian border to ensure flow of logistic and military supplies to its military bases in Syria. This strategy aims at competing with blackmailing Israel so as to settle Iran’s disputes with the West. Iran uses its militias to destabilize the region like what Hezbollah is doing in Lebanon and Syria. For Iran, these militias constitute a front defense line and strategic depth. Thus, the United States closely watches Iran’s activities for fear of any further expansion of Iran’s militias which reached the western bank of Euphrates and this geographically linked them with Al Hashed Militias in Iraq. USA aims at rebuking Iran’s strategy. With the collapse of ISIS in Syrian Badiah, Iran deployed thousands of its militia fighters in the area to maintain its domination and its strategic thresholds.     

In the light of the current alliances of conflicting interests, the area is under the influence of conflicting strategies that can be viewed through many dimensions:

  • Military dimension

This area has become a vital domain for all conflicting parties in Syria. USA, with its 1000 special forces militants, has got limited options despite its powerful air forces. Its alliance with Revolution Commandos has been impaired as this military faction is more or less besieged in Al Tanf. US other ally, Syrian Democratic Forces, has got an implicit accord with Assad’s Regime and doesn’t want to get involved in any fight against Pro-Iran Militias. Another problem is that the United States is not ready for a big deal with the Russia in Syria. US relations with Turkey are influenced by increasing tension because of US support to Syrian Democratic Forces. Therefore, US forces in Syrian have become a buffer entity between SDFs and Turkey.

Thus, Iran is exploiting the indecisiveness of the United States to ensure open routes for its militias and their supplies through three routes, Humaimah, T2, southwestern part of Bukammal and routes inside Iraqi territories. Iran’s militias are doing their best to keep control of these areas. ISIS, on its part, continues its activities against Iran’s militias, especially at night.  

Local resources and military experts in Al Anbar Province in Iraq reported that USA has recently sent more of its forces to Al Tanf area. These reinforcements aim at protecting the border with Iraq simultaneously with battles with the last enclaves of ISIS in Deir Ezour.

  • Security dimension

Reviewing these frontlines of the confrontation in the area, we can see that the area from western Baghdad to Damascus has the same demography and sectarian background. It is a hostile environment for Iran project. To keep its militias in such unstable desert areas, Iran needs huge humanitarian and military resources. It is an urban area with dense population on the right bank of Euphrates. Iran’s efforts to convert locals Sunnis into Shiites has provoked armed conflicts amidst US claims to undermine the presence of Iran in the region and expelling it from Syria. 

  • Political dimension

Iran’s existence in the area has been confronted with changes of US policies after Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States. US statements about expelling Iran from Syria in collaboration with Russia. According to some resources in London, USA and Russia have discussed a bargain by which Tanf Military base is removed in return for the removal of all Iran’s militias from Syria. However, USA expressed its intention to keep its military presence in Al Tanf to monitor the withdrawal of Iran’s militias from Syria. John Bolton, US Security Advisor, emphasized the importance of American presence in A Tanf Military Base.

Conclusion

In the light of the above-mentioned facts, we notice that the strategy of the International Coalition is based on military pressure to block routes in the Syrian Badiah through US military measures depending on its powerful air forces and Revolution Commandos Army which occupies part of Damascus- Baghdad highway. Revolution Commandos Army is in charge of protecting Al Tanf Military Base and keep part of the road under control.

Blocking the road between Baghdad and Damascus and control of the border are some of the strategic objectives of the war in this area. Iran has mobilized thousands of its militia fighters in this area, while the United States wanted to drawn Iran in this swamp. Disengagement channel between Russia and the United States has contributed to identification of domination margins around Al Tanf Base with 50 kilometers inside Iraqi territories. To respond to this situation, Iran attempted to activate ISIS attacks against Russian soldiers with the aim of drawing the attention to the danger of ISIS and distract the World attention from the Iranian danger. Iran and Russia have been exchanging accusation of ISIS attacks on forces of the two side. Iran wanted to send a message to Washington that termination of Iran’s threats will make room for worse threats of ISIS. ISIS benefited from these conflicting interests and opened logistic routes that enabled it to expand in all directions and keep Al Sukhanh and Beshri Mountain under control to connect these two areas with the Syrian Badiah.

Thus, the importance of Syrian Badiah stems from its large area that connects most provinces of Syria and two neighboring countries, Jordan and Iraq. Natural sources like oil and phosphate and economic importance stimulated regional and international powers. The strategy of US-led Coalition lies in fighting ISIS terrorism and aborting the Iranian presence in Syria through blocking routes that connect Baghdad with Damascus to the Mediterranean.

A big question remains: How is the geopolitical scene in Syrian Badiah going to be formed amidst these fast developments which will have eminent influence on the future of Syria and the region.


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