Parties involved: Iraq, Syria, United States, Iran-backed militias
● In early August, the United States announced new deployments of dozens of combat aircraft, an additional 3,000 marines, two destroyers and an Amphibious Ready Group.
● Over the last week, dozens of convoys of US military vehicles were spotted throughout Iraq igniting widespread rumors about an imminent operation. While this is a recurring trend during unit rotations, the routes and the number of vehicles are inconsistent with a standard rotation period.
● Over the last several days, there has been a significant increase in the number of US and coalition military aircraft above western Iraq and Syria. This increase has also been noted by the daily Russian Defense reports about their operations in Syria.
● Rumors are circulating that the United States is planning to conduct an operation in Syria to clear the area of Iran-backed militias, cut off the Iranian supply route, and reshape the code of conduct with Russia in Syria.
● The spokesperson for the US Department of Defense and an Iraqi general have stated that their offices are unaware of any unusual military movements in Iraq.
● Shiite factions are ‘’aware of an imminent operation, and have been asked to avoid escalation.’’ Three Iraqi military officials have also stated that the US is repositioning in preparation for a military operation outside Iraq ‘’to change the rules of engagement with the Russians in Syria.’’ ‘’The Americans will also try to cut off the Iranian supply route towards Syria and Lebanon, through Iraqi territory (...).’’
Analysis and implications:
The increased activities of the US military in Iraq do not seem to be due to an overlap period of unit rotations. A similar increase in activity was noted shortly before the killing of Qasem Soleimani, but the longer duration of the current increase in military movements indicates that a larger operation could be planned. However, details remain limited and most rumors are based on unconfirmed statements. Additionally, there is no notable increase in trackable surveillance flights above Iraq and/or Syria which would be an expected sign of an upcoming large-scale operation.
A major operation in the Syria-Iraq border region would likely cause several overspill effects, especially because of growing tensions between major powers in the region which include Israel, Iran, Russia, the US and various militias. Regional groups, including Palestinian factions, will likely seize the opportunity to conduct attacks and the Israeli military could launch an operation in Lebanon or in Palestinian territories as well. The potential US operation is likely to ignite the tensions in and around the Strait of Hormuz which would lead to a direct confrontation between US and Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf. However, because the scope of the potential US operation is unknown, it is practically impossible to predict what effects the potential operation will have on the region.
The increase in US military movements in and above Iraq, together with the reinforcements sent to the region and the Persian Gulf, indicates that something could be planned. The movements are not consistent with the recurring overlap period during unit rotation periods. Widespread rumors suggest that the United States is planning to conduct an operation in the Syria-Iraq border region to combat the influence of Iran-backed militias, cut off the Iranian supply route towards Syria and Lebanon, and possibly reshape the code of conduct with Russia in Syria. However, these possible explanations are based on unconfirmed statements and the real reason for the increased military movements remains unclear.