Washington Free Beacon, By Adam Kredo
Thursday, 13 June 2017
Iran boosts proxy fight against American forces in Syria
The Iranian-backed terror organization Hezbollah is vowing to launch strikes on U.S. forces operating in war-torn Syria in yet another sign that Iran and its terror proxies are beginning to take unprecedented direct action against American military coalition forces, according to U.S. officials and regional experts tracking the situation.
Just days before Iranian-affiliated militants launched a series of strikes on U.S. forces in Syria, Hezbollah released an official statement vowing to boost its terror operations against America, according to a translation of the five-point document provided to the Washington Free Beacon.
Officials and experts are viewing Hezbollah's declaration as further proof that Iran is willing to attack American-backed forces as part of its efforts to bolster embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
U.S. military officials acknowledged that Iran was likely behind a drone strike on American forces last week, a move that has escalated a growing proxy war in the region between Iran and the United States.
U.S. military officials told the Free Beacon that while they are not seeking a fight with Syrian-regime backers such as Iran and Russia, they will take forceful action to prevent attacks on assets in the area.
"The Coalition presence in Syria addresses the imminent threat ISIS in Syria poses globally," one U.S. military official with Central Command, or CENTCOM, told the Free Beacon. "The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but is well prepared to defend itself from hostile threats if necessary."
U.S. military officials recognize the threat posed by Iran and its terror proxies, but are working to focus on the fight against ISIS, which is the primary reason American forces are working in Syria, sources said.
"The Coalition calls on all parties to focus their efforts on the defeat of ISIS, which is our common enemy and the greatest threat to regional and worldwide peace and security," according to the military official.
Hezbollah's latest warning to U.S. forces is certain to escalate tensions in a region that has experienced unprecedented violence in the past years.
"America knows well … that the capacity to strike their [American-backed] gathering points in Syria and its neighbors are available any time the circumstances call for it, based on the availability of various rocket and military systems, in light of the deployment of American forces in the region," Hezbollah warned in its statement, which was independently translated from Arabic for the Free Beacon.
Hezbollah claims that there have not yet been strikes due to "self-restraint" from terror entities operating in the area.
Iranian officials made a similar declaration in the past week. Video footage released by the Islamic Republic last week shows Iranian drones shadowing U.S. forces in the region while Farsi-language narrators laugh and threaten attacks.
"The silence of Syria's allies is not a sign of weakness, but self-restraint, out of the allies' wish to open the door for other solutions," Hezbollah said in its statement. "But this will not last if America goes far and crosses red lines."
One veteran Middle East policy adviser who is in routine contact with the Trump White House told the Free Beacon that Iran's increased willingness to strike U.S. forces is based on fears about the Trump administration's willingness to target Iranian terror operations.
The Obama administration took a mostly hands off approach to Iran's aggressive behavior in the Middle East due to its efforts to ink the nuclear deal and ensure it sticks.
"The Iran nuclear deal required ignoring the atrocities being committed across the Middle East by Iran and Hezbollah, including the systematic ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in Syria," the source said. "If the Obama administration had ever pushed back, it would have triggered a confrontation with Iran, and the nuclear deal would have collapsed."
"But the Trump administration is putting a stop to that blackmail and taking a holistic approach to the behavior of Iran and its proxies," the source explained. "They're not going to let Iran hold our entire foreign policy hostage to the nuclear deal, no matter what that says about Obama's legacy."
Tony Badran, a Syria expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Pentagon is aware that Iran is orchestrating attacks on behalf of Assad in Syria.
"That the DoD is negating any distinction between Assad regime forces and Iranian militias is both accurate and significant," Badran said. "It is accurate in that regime forces—themselves an assortment of militias and remnants of the army—are integrated with the IRGC-led militias. And it's significant insofar as it eliminates the option for the Russians to play up the charade of that distinction."
Iran's goal is to expand its operations in Syria and intimidate U.S. forces, Badran said.
"Hezbollah media is accompanying these forces and shooting footage and posting pictures and declarations of intent to connect their forces on both sides of the Syrian and Iraqi borders," he said. "There is no question who is the lead force here: it's an Iranian force."