US forces have opened fire on Iranian-backed forces in Syria three times in the past month, amid mounting tensions that observers and former officials worry could easily turn into an unplanned, spiralling conflict.
The string of incidents has illustrated how the eastern Syrian desert is becoming an arena for confrontation between the US and Iran, a potential flashpoint alongside Yemen, where Washington and Iran back opposing forces in a two-year war, and the Persian Gulf around the Strait of Hormuz.
Such encounters are not new in the busy Hormuz waterway, but the context for them is. There is a new administration in Washington that is in many ways chaotic, but is united on a desire to push back Iranian influence in the region. Internal opinion differs mainly on the degree of force and risk required.
High-level contacts established between Washington and Tehran by the Obama administration have been cut off. From the White House, Donald Trump has maintained the fervently anti-Iranian rhetoric of his campaign. He made the first foreign trip of his presidency to Saudi Arabia, siding unambiguously with Riyadh in its rivalry with Tehran.
Trump has portrayed Iranian influence as a global threat on a par with Isis and al-Qaida. When Tehran suffered a terrorism attack on 7 June, the US president implied that the Iranian government was ultimately to blame.
There is growing concern among US allies in Europe that the Trump administration has struck a posture towards Iran before deciding on a strategy for addressing its influence in the region, and anxiety that such posturing could become louder and more dangerous as Trump feels hemmed in by investigations into his campaign’s Russia links.
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