Clashes between US, regime forces present new challenges for Russia in Syria

Northeastern Syria's volatile mix of players is proving to be a tough test for Russia.

al-monitor The area of a pro-Syrian government checkpoint near the village Tal Dahab in the countryside of Qamishli in Syria's Kurdish-controlled northeastern Hasakah province is seen on Aug. 17, 2020. The US-led coalition in Syria said a patrol had come under attack and engaged in a firefight near the pro-government checkpoint in the country's northeast. Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images.

Aug 25, 2020

A US military facility in northeastern Syria, in the eastern part of the Deir ez-Zor region, came under rocket fire Aug. 19, with several shells falling in the vicinity of a US base near the Conoco oil field. On Aug. 17, an armed incident occurred between an American patrol and Syrian military personnel near the city of Qamishli in adjoining Hasakah province. After the sides exchanged fire at a checkpoint, a Syrian solider was killed; while the Syrian state news agency SANA said the soldier was killed by fire from US helicopter gunships, the US command said there was only an exchange of ground fire.

These incidents should serve as another signal for the Russian command, which has found itself in a very risky position in the so-called trans-Euphrates region. Moscow does not have the necessary leverage on the Syrian regime to prevent Syrian provocations against the Americans, nor does it have sufficient forces to carry out effective military operations. The region in question is the left bank of the Euphrates river, which Russian and Syrian troops entered last fall on the basis of an agreement with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in order to prevent the advance of Turkish troops during Operation Peace Spring.

In this area Russian and Syrian troops do not have full territorial and administrative control. The US-backed SDF continues to maintain its presence, with its affiliated civil administration, not to mention US military installations.

Unlike the American contingent stationed in this region, the three battalions of the Russian military police in the trans-Euphrates region are deprived of aerial support. Russian aircraft cannot be deployed without the approval of the United States, which controls the airspace over northeastern Syria. This makes the positions of the Russian and allied Syrian forces more precarious in the event of possible clashes with local groups, whether pro-Turkish or Kurdish.

At the same time, while at the end of 2019 the threat of escalation in the northeast was most likely between Damascus and the opposition Syrian National Army, which jointly conducted Operation Peace Spring with Turkey, now the risk of clashes is higher between the regime forces and the SDF. Since the United States has decided to stay in eastern Syria, the SDF command is less and less inclined to compromise with the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

The regime’s secret services — known in Arabic as the mukhabarat — are allegedly playing a role this conflict between Damascus and the SDF. The mukhabarat are trying to drive the protests of the Arab tribes living in Deir ez-Zor into an open armed uprising against the SDF, so that then some local elders associated with the Syrian mukhabarat will ask Assad to intervene and support them. To achieve these goals, the secret services are ready to carry out various kinds of provocations to aggravate the split between the SDF and the tribes, including contract killings of tribal authorities that can be blamed on the SDF. This work by Assad's agents is already yielding results.

A number of elders from the al-Uqaydat tribe — the largest tribe in Deir ez-Zor province — announced the creation of the Army of al-Uqaydat with the aim of organizing "popular resistance to the American occupation and its mercenaries." Apparently, it is these forces that were behind the shelling of the American military facility near the Conoco field Aug. 19. It is significant that they were supported by one of the sheikhs of the Bakara tribe, Nawaf al-Bashir, who in 2017 announced his support for Assad and is associated with Iran. He announced the beginning of a liberation war for the region east of the Euphrates and called for the formation of military forces and political bodies "that will coordinate the fight against the US and Kurdish terrorists."

However, such a radical scenario cannot be supported by Russia, which is aware of both its own military weakness in the northeast of Syria, as well as of the insufficient level of support for Damascus from the Deir ez-Zor tribes (despite the strong loyalty of some individual sheikhs). The Russian side also fears that escalation in the region could lead to a direct conflict between the Syrian regime and the SDF, which would be directly supported by the United States. In such a situation, Moscow is unlikely to be able to help Assad and will be forced to play the role of an observer, which would negatively affect the image of the Kremlin.

At the same time, on the whole, Russia is ready to encourage the desire of the Arab tribes of the northeast and east of Syria to free themselves from the patronage of the SDF, but not involve them in direct confrontation with the Kurds and the United States. Moscow will only try to attract the Arabs to its side, including by involving and recruiting military formations operating under the auspices of Russia.

The Russian side last fall negotiated with Jamil Rashid al-Khafal, one of the sheikhs of the al-Uqaydat tribe, offering him a plan of "reconciliation" with the regime according to the same formula that was used with rebels in Daraa in southwestern Syria. At the same time, the forces of the Military Council of Deir ez-Zor (a military structure of the SDF, consisting of Arab tribes) would become the basis of new brigades of the 5th assault corps, which is directly linked to the Russian military command. The tribes, however, ignored the Russian proposal after Washington said that its forces would remain in eastern Syria to protect oil fields.

Currently, this idea can be partially revived. We can talk about attracting the forces of the Arab tribes of the northeast into a new pro-Russian structure, which may become the 6th assault corps. However, in the first stage, units from Arab tribes will only join the pro-Russian units, without being transferred control over the territories. Also, this new formation should involve fighters of local units of the pro-government National Defense Forces, which the Iranians helped set up.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the right bank of the Euphrates river to the southeast of the city of Deir ez-Zor and up to the Iraqi border is controlled by pro-Iranian groups associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Here, from the city of Boukamal (also known as Abu Kamal), begins the so-called "Shiite corridor" that links Iran through Iraq with Syria and Lebanon, and new Iranian bases are being created. In this regard, the facilities of the IRGC and pro-Iranian groups in this region serve as targets for attacks by Israeli jets.

A well-informed source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Iran intends to continue to build up its presence in eastern Syria and for this will likely use, as in Daraa, the cover of the Syrian army’s elite 4th Armored Division. The latter, which is commanded by the president’s brother Maher al-Assad, is charged with defending the government from internal and external threats and has begun recruiting local residents in the city of Mayadin, in northeastern Syria, for its new units. As a result, many pro-Iranian groups in this region will be able to "mimic" the regular units of the 4th division. Thus, the 4th division, both in the Syrian southwest and in the northeast of Syria, will be Russia's main competitor in attracting local tribal and opposition formations to the ranks of its proxy forces.

Russia's plans to consolidate its position in the northeast of Syria and create loyal formations there can be supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which themselves are actively working with the Arab tribes of the region. The deployment of pro-Russian military structures in northeastern Syria could lead to the creation of a "buffer zone" there, free from the Iranian presence, which also meets the interests of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. This would serve as a guarantee that if American troops leave the region, their place would be taken not by pro-Iranian formations but rather ones created and controlled by Moscow. At the same time, such a scenario is unlikely to be in the interests of Turkey, which — in response to the attempts of Russia and the Assad regime to expand control over the territories ruled by the SDF — will try to find a way to increase its Peace Spring security zone. In addition, Ankara could consider strengthening its position in the Syrian northeast through some concessions to Russia in Idlib.

Although northeastern Syria is in the "shadow of Idlib," in reality it is an equally volatile region and any incident that occurs there carries the risks of escalation between the United States and Russia. In the Syrian northeast there are armed forces and armed formations of Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran, Assad, the Syrian opposition, the Kurds, Arab tribes, the PKK and the Islamic State. In this region as well, the interests of Turkey come into conflict with the interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. All this creates an extremely explosive mixture that even a small spark can ignite.

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