US forces have opened fire on Syrian militias backed by Tehran three times in the past month. All of the incidents took place at al-Tanf, a remote desert outpost near the border with Iraq and Jordan, where US and British special operations forces have been training Syrian rebel fighters.
The series of clashes has demonstrated how the eastern Syrian desert is becoming an arena for confrontation between the US and Iran, a potential flashpoint alongside Yemen. Following the attacks on Damascus positions, an operational headquarters of the allied forces of the Syrian government army threatened the US-led coalition with a retaliatory strike.
Observers point out that the Trump administration's policy on Iran recalls the hardline policy of the George W. Bush era, and that now Washington is ready to intensify its activities to fight Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Throughout the 2016 US presidential campaign, Donald Trump criticized Obama for being "too soft" on Iran, and for allowing it to gain strength in the region. Since his inauguration, Trump has maintained his anti-Iranian rhetoric, and the first foreign trip of his presidency was to Saudi Arabia, where he accused Tehran of sponsoring global terrorism and called on the region isolate the Islamic republic as the main adversary of the Gulf monarchies.
"We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote," the US president remarked after Tehran suffered a terrorist attack on 7 June that killed 17 and injured over 40 people.
"By going to Saudi Arabia and declaring there was going to be an all-out isolation of Iran… not only did Trump close the window for an all-inclusive dialogue, but he also opened up a window for a potential war with Iran," Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council and author of the book, "Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy," told the Guardian.
Trump has not delivered on his campaign threat to "rip up" the nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers in July 2015, but he has shown a readiness to take a more aggressive and confrontational approach with the Islamic Republic, while Republicans in Congress have called for new sanctions that would put the agreement's survival at risk.
"Three of the most dangerous places on earth today are in Yemen, the area between eastern Syria and western Iraq and the halls of the US Congress," said Robert Malley, a senior Obama White House official who helped negotiate the nuclear deal, as cited by the Guardian.
"At this point what I'm hearing from the Iranians is they are determined to play it cool, not overreact to what the US does, and show they are the ones who are being fully compliant. At some point, it may well be the supreme leader decides: ‘We are going to do something.'"
Ilan Goldenberg, a former state department and defense official, cautioned that a fierce collision between Iran and the US may happen as soon as the "tolerance that Shia Iranian-supported groups and American-supported groups have shown for each other" fades as Daesh disappears off the map.
His predictions were echoed by Jennifer Cafarella, an expert on the conflict at the Institute for the Study of War, who said that "the larger picture…is the war after [Daesh], the war to dominate the security sphere after the recapture of Mosul."