It’s time to have a sane discussion regarding what is going on in Syria. Things have escalated exponentially over the past month or so, and they continue to escalate. The U.S. just shot down yet another Iranian-made drone within Syrian territory on Tuesday, even as authorities insist they “do not seek conflict with any party in Syria other than ISIS.”
Col. Ryan Dillon, chief U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, seemed to indicate that the coalition would avoid escalating the conflict following Russia’s warning that it will now treat American aircraft as potential targets. He stated:
“As a result of recent encounters involving pro-Syrian regime and Russian forces, we have taken prudent measures to reposition aircraft over Syria so as to continue targeting ISIS forces while ensuring the safety of our aircrews given known threats in the battlespace.”
So what is really going on in Syria? Is the U.S. actually seeking an all-out confrontation with Syria, Iran, and Russia?
The first thing to note is that a policy switch under the Trump administration has seen the U.S. rely heavily on Kurdish fighters on the ground as opposed to the radical Gulf-state backed Islamist rebels, which the U.S. and its allies had been using in their proxy war for over half a decade. Even the Obama administration designated the Kurds the most effective fighting force against ISIS and partnered with them from time to time, but Turkey’s decision to directly strike these fighters complicates the matter to this day.
Further muddling the situation is the fact that the U.S. wants the Kurds to claim key Syrian cities after ISIS is defeated, including Raqqa. However, the reason this complicates matters is that, as Joshua Landis, head of the Middle Eastern Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma explains, the Kurds have “no money” nor do they have an air force.
“[T]hey’ll be entirely dependent on the US Air Force from now to eternity, and the United States will be stuck in a quagmire, defending a new Kurdish state that America had partnered with to defeat [ISIL],” Landis said, as reported by Quartz.
So what has the U.S. proposed as a solution to this perpetual dilemma? To put it simply, the U.S. is not only training the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to retain the vitally strategic border crossing area of al-Tanf, which, if owned and operated by the Syrian government, could link Iran to Syria, Iraq, and right through to Hezbollah in Lebanon (incidentally, al-Tanf is latest instance of the U.S. shooting down an Iranian-made drone took place). The U.S. is now also backing these Kurdish fighters to retake an area known as Deir ez-Zor.
The Syrian government retains an isolated outpost at Deir ez-Zor, and the region is almost completely encircled by ISIS fighters. Just last week, a video emerged of convoys of ISIS fighters fleeing the war in Raqqa unscathed. Anti-Media speculated that these fighters were most likely headed towards Deir ez-Zor as they have done in the past, and this area is now widely regarded to be the scene of ISIS’ last stand in Syria.
The U.S. needs a strong ISIS presence in Deir ez-Zor to justify an offensive to retake the city, especially considering the fact that Syrian government troops are already present there. This is why the U.S. delivered airstrikes to stop government forces from repelling ISIS fighters in an air raid in September of last year that reportedly lasted well over an hour and killed over 60 government troops.
Deir ez-Zor is immensely important because it is home to Syria’s largest oil fields. As Quartz explains, according to Landis, America’s strategy is “for the Kurdish forces to take Deir al-Zour, the major regional city and the hub for its oil fields. That way, the Kurds would be able to afford to buy airplanes from the US, rather than require Washington to give them for free.”
As Iranian-backed militiamen — supported by Iranian-made drones — amass upon a U.S. training base in al-Tanf, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Syrian government and its allies will not want to cede strategic territory to the U.S. without a fight. At the very least, Iran intends to encircle al-Tanf and cut the U.S. off from the rest of Syria, rendering the base useless for America’s goals in the country.
However, Deir ez-Zor is where things could potentially get more heated than they already are between the U.S. and the pro-Assad alliance in al-Tanf and Raqqa.
Russia, a staunch ally of Iran and Syria, is already bombing the areas around Deir ez-Zor in full preparation for this battle. According to the Independent, Russia just claimed it killed around 180 ISIS militants and two prominent commanders, Abu Omar al-Belijiki and Abu Yassin al-Masri, very close to ISIS’ stronghold in Deir ez-Zor.
Iran launched a mid-range ballistic missile attack on a position in Deir ez-Zor over the weekend, as well. According to Military Times, Iranian officials said the purpose of the strike was to send a message to the United States and Saudi Arabia and have warned of more strikes to come, with former Guard chief Gen. Mohsen Rezai — an Iranian politician — stating “[t]he bigger slap is yet to come.”
Landis believes these recent escalations only mark a “gnashing of teeth and growling” between the Russians and the Americans and that both powers are merely working out where the new boundaries will fall between American-backed forces and Syrian government forces.
But there is a crucial difference between the Russian-led campaigns and the American-led campaigns within Syria: Russia was invited by the Syrian government and is not clearly not attempting to invade Syria in the traditional sense of the word, as they are relying on local troops to retake the territory that still belongs to the Syrian government. In contrast, the United States has invaded Syrian territory without authorization from Congress or the international community and has partnered with incredibly controversial militias on the ground to claim Syrian territory, further partitioning the country and over-complicating an already convoluted battle arena.
And what will happen if Syria decides that the oil-hub area of Deir ez-Zor is too important to allow the U.S.-backed forces to take it away from them? The fact that Russia and Iran are already bombing this area speaks volumes as to its strategic value, and it seems increasingly unlikely that the pro-Assad alliance will give up the location freely.
Further, having complete control of Deir ez-Zor without opening up the al-Tanf border to Syrian government control would make the liberation of Deir ez-Zor almost meaningless to Syria and its allies, as Deir ez-Zor would be cut off from the rest of Syria. The two offensives go hand in hand, and this is exactly why we see the war escalating rapidly on these two fronts.
Not to mention, Syrian Member of Parliament Ammar al-Asad reportedly just told Russian state-owned Sputnik that the Syrian army will respond to America’s provocative actions by conducting “massive strikes” on positions held by American-backed militants.
An optimist would view the recent developments in the humanitarian disaster that is the so-called Syrian revolution with the hope that the U.S., Iran, and Russia are merely muscle-flexing inside Syria in an attempt to control as much of the country as realistically possible following the downfall of ISIS – and will eventually settle amicably on a drawing of Syria’s new boundaries.
A pessimist might not be so hopeful, as Iran and China held naval drills in the Strait of Hormuz just days after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson admitted the U.S. is officially targeting Iran for a regime change operation.