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American-Russian rivalry in east Syria

A huge explosion sends dark clouds into the air after Assad Regime forces carried out air and ground strikes over the agreed de-conflict zone, Cobar district in the Eastern Ghouta region of Damascus, Syria on August 20, 2017. ( Ammar Al-Bushy - Anadolu Agency )
A huge explosion sends clouds into the air after the Assad Regime carried out air and ground strikes over the de-conflict zone, in Damascus, Syria on 20 August 2017 [Ammar Al-Bushy/Anadolu Agency]

The US-Russian rivalry over the legacy of Daesh in the eastern part of Syria is raging, especially in Deir Ez-Zor. While the US launched a violent air and artillery attack on the city of Raqqa on 6 June, relying on the Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground which is mostly made up of Kurds, the Russians launched an even more violent air and missile attack on Deir Ez-Zor, relying on the Syrian regime’s forces and its Shia militias on the ground.

There is no doubt that the coincidence of the American attack on Raqqa with the Russian attack on Deir Ez-Zor reveals a deal between the two sides, as pointed out by David Ignatius in an article published in the Washington Post on 4 July. In it he said: “The Euphrates marks the informal ‘deconfliction’ line between the Russian-backed Syrian regime west of the river, and the US-backed and Kurdish-led SDF to the east. In the past several weeks, the two powers negotiated a useful adjustment of the line. The US-Russian agreement on this buffer zone is a promising sign. It allows, in effect, for the United States and its allies to clear the Islamic State’s capital, Raqqa, while Russia and the Syrian regime take the city of Deir Al-Zour [sic], to the southeast.”

According to Fabrice Balanche from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the current military situation confirms the existence of this agreement between the US and Russia. This agreement certainly displeases the Syrian regime, as it is seeking to regain control over the southern bank of the Euphrates, Al-Thawra Dam and Raqqa, once the city is liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces. However, if the regime wants to re-impose itself on Deir Ez-Zor, it will need Russian air support, and will therefore have to submit to Moscow’s will. In a step that shows Russia’s clear willingness to be a serious partner to the US in Syria, the Kremlin did not respond strongly to the Americans’ shooting down of a Syrian plane that threatened the Syrian Democratic Forces near Raqqa on 18 June.

Read: Two Russian soldiers killed by shelling in Syria’s Deir Ez-Zor province

In this context, it seems that the American-Russian agreement involves several detailed conflicts, according to the political commentator for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vladimir Mokhin. This is because the conflicts between Damascus and the international alliance led by Washington have begun to intensify with the Syrian government forces advancing on three strategic directions towards Deir Ez-Zor, the city surrounded by oil fields, and which has become the main target for Al-Assad’s forces and the Russian air force’s planes. The Syrian Democratic Forces, which is mainly formed of Kurds, had announced in the past that an attack would be launched against Deir Ez-Zor, at the same time as the operation to liberate Raqqa.

Hence, the Kurds – backed by the US – intent to take control of oil and gas-rich areas, and according to them, Syrian Democratic Forces units will advance from Al-Hasaka governorate and their first target will be the city of Mayadin, located on the right bank of the Euphrates River. However, this plan contradicts many things, including: first, the Russian-American undeclared agreement which stipulates that the alliance forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces will carry out military operations in the areas east of the Euphrates.

Secondly, the implementation of these plans will hinder the progression of the state forces, which will lead to clashes with the Syrian Democratic Forces units, which is what happened when Washington, with the help of the Kurds, wanted to establish sites in the Al-Tabqa airport in order to attack the right bank of the Euphrates. At the time, an American plane shot down a Syrian Sukhoi-22 jet under the pretext of it attacking Syrian Democratic Forces’ sites. When the problem was resolved with an American-Russian deal, the Syrian regime forces, backed by Russian air force planes, began to advance towards the southeast, including the western bank of the Euphrates.

Read: 772 civilians killed in Syria last month

Despite Trump’s insistence on expanding his predecessor Obama’s strategy of confronting Iran as well as Daesh to limit Iran’s expansionist activities in the region, this approach suffers from obvious flaws. It also puts the US’ plans in Syria in a serious dilemma that could trigger a direct confrontation between Washington and pro-regime forces on the Syrian-Iraqi border. That is, if Tehran persists in establishing a passage extending from Iran to Lebanon, which reveals the limited options Trump has. Stressing the need to defeat Daesh currently does not allow for finding an effective and reliable alternative to the Kurdish militias, which are forces that are not concerned with the battle of Deir Ez-Zor. It may also put Ankara and Washington on opposite sides of the big geostrategic game looming in the horizon in the area, a risk that threatens to stall the liberation operation in east Syria and puts Washington in a direct confrontation with Tehran and the Syrian regime forces.

The military race towards Deir Ez-Zor is underway without the presence of a political context. As the Syrian army is getting closer to regaining Deir Ez-Zor and the possibility of Daesh being pushed towards Al-Bukamal, the US-backed forces do not have enough strength to face Daesh and reach Deir Ez-Zor before the arrival of the Syrian regime forces, which, with the support of Russian and Iranian forces, started a coordinated campaign in January 2017 of bombing Daesh’s frontlines non-stop. The Badia battles and working to launch a military campaign against many axes, starting with the northwestern axis in the Raqqa south-eastern suburbs, the western axis in Homs’ eastern suburb, the southwestern axis in Homs’ southwestern suburb, the eastern axis behind the Iraqi border, and the final axis is inside the parts controlled by the regime in Deir Ez-Zor, especially the airport area. Since March 2017, the Syrian army and its allies have been progressing east, taking advantage of Daesh’s withdrawal from the areas surrounding Palmyra (known as Tadmur in Arabic), and in early June, the regime forces and its allies reached the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The division of influence between America and Russia in eastern Syria has become more complicated as they approach the Iraqi border, as the overlaps begin to emerge in Deir Ez-Zor’s south-eastern suburbs in Al-Bukamal and Mayadin. In addition to this, American red lines have emerged regarding the nature of the influence in these areas after the alliance insisted on prohibiting a Daesh convoy from arriving, after the Juruoud Arsal agreement with Hezbollah, stipulating that the alliance’s aircrafts do not leave the area. It intensified its attacks by targeting Al-Bukamal. Therefore, the US plan aims to expel Daesh and deprive Iran from establishing a passage towards the Mediterranean. However, the plan lacks the ability of being implemented on the ground because it is based on a complicated scenario based on the US supporting an attack by the Arab allied forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground in Deir Ez-Zor and control the northern banks of the Euphrates to progress towards Mayadin. This will then be followed by them crossing the river and making their way towards Al-Bukamal, before seizing the area on the Iraqi border and the other side of the border, thus having the Iraqi army, not the Shia militias, eliminate Daesh.

There are doubts about America’s ability to carry out its plan, as the number of allied Arab forces backed by the United States is very weak, as the Lions of the East Army, Revolutionary Commando Army, and the Deir Ez-Zor Liberation Brigade do not amount to more than about 2,000 fighters, according to the highest estimates. This was evident on 29 June 2016 when they failed miserably in their attempt to seize control of Al-Bukamel. Moreover, when these forces progressed on the ground towards Al-Bukamel from Al-Tanf in spring 2017, they were stopped by a surprise attack by the Shia militias from Palmyra to the border.

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Despite the many obstacles hindering the American plan and the patient Russian strategy, the US limited its options on 9 September by carrying out its plan, as the Deir Ez-Zor military council, under the wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces, announced the launch of Operation Jazeera Storm to liberate the areas east of the Euphrates and the eastern suburb of Deir Ez-Zor from Daesh’s control.  This council was formed, with American support, of several military factions on 19 March and according to its founding statement, it consists of the following factions: Levant Front, Sultan Murad Division, Al-Qa’qa’ Brigades, Ghuraba Brigades, Ali Matar Brigades, Euphrates Martyrs Brigade, Muhajireen il Allah Brigades and the Farouq Brigades.

In this context, the Washington-led international alliance welcomed the announcement of the attack and said that its forces would support the Ara-Syrian alliance, a name used by the American government to refer to the Arab factions under the Syrian Democratic Forces, most of whom are Kurdish fighters. The international alliance’s statement said that it would support these forces during their attack in the Khabur Valley by providing equipment, training, reconnaissance and logistical supporters to attacking fighters.

In short, America is in a race with Russia over the legacy left behind by Daesh in eastern Syria and the border areas west of Iraq. While Russia has a patient strategy that relies on the Syrian regime forces and Iran’s Shia militias, the US lacks a strong and cohesive strategy given the lack of strong, allied Arab Sunni forces on the ground. Meanwhile, the effective Kurdish forces have doubts regarding any promises made by the US, especially after the US abandoned its support for the moderate Syrian opposition. Hence, the Democratic Union Party along with the Arab Syrian opposition forces will hesitate before blindly supporting the American strategy in east Syria without the presence of serious long-term American assurances based on a strong foundation including the establishment of a permanent American military base and the deployment of tens of thousands of troops on the ground. This is not currently on the American agenda, but just as the US changed its strategy in Afghanistan, it will be forced to change it in Syria and Iraq.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 10 September 2017

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  • dutchnational

    Interesting article, knitting together a number of loose facts.

    Facts on the ground always cause differences to all well thought out plans and analyses.

    Some of those differences are :

    DMC found enough arab figthers as the Elite force collapsed and most of its fighters joined the DMC through the SDF. Hundreds of tribal fighters, aiding Assad in south Raqqah, were so disgusted by lack of support by SAA when IS counterattacked, that they joined the DMC, bringing with new recruits DMC up to some 5k+ fighters. Joined by Sanadid forces, MMC and some YPG/YPJ units, they are over 10k momentarily. It might be possible for SDF to release some reserves near Raqqah if all goes well there this week.

    The idea the Mayadin might be the main focus is wrong for two reasons : the advance through the Khabur Vally is difficult because of the heavy fortification of IS held Markadeh and because SDF wants to be at the east bank of the Euphrates when SAA defeats IS there on the west bank (not that one, the other one). This in case Russia will provide a temporary bridge over the river there. Better to prevent a crossing than to fight one.

    All in all, the most likely outcome is SAA will advance on the west side, SDF on the east side. A crossing by SDF near Mayadin is almost out of the question. Only in case of SAA not being able to defeat IS in DeZ in a timely fashion might tempt SDF to try crossing there. Even then, imo a low probability.