The moment the first Russian jet landed in Syria at the invitation of the Assad government in 2015, Putin placed himself in the driver’s seat concerning the international proxy war in the Levant. From a strategic standpoint the armed opposition stood no chance of ever tipping the scales against Damascus from that moment onward. And though US relations with Russia became more belligerent and tense partly as a result of that intervention, it meant that Russia would set the terms of how the war would ultimately wind down.
Russia’s diplomatic and strategic victory in the Middle East was made clear this week as news broke of “secret” and unprecedented US-Russia face to face talks on Syria. The Russians reportedly issued a stern warning to the US military, saying that it will respond in force should the Syrian Army or Russian assets come under fire by US proxies.
The AP reports that senior military officials from both countries met in an undisclosed location “somewhere in the Middle East” in order to discuss spheres of operation in Syria and how to avoid the potential for a direct clash of forces. Tensions have escalated in the past two weeks as the Syrian Army in tandem with Russian special forces are now set to fully liberate Deir Ezzor city, while at the same time the US-backed SDF (the Arab-Kurdish coalition, “Syrian Democratic Forces”) – advised by American special forces – is advancing on the other side of the Euphrates. As we’ve explained before, the US is not fundamentally motivated in its “race for Deir Ezzor province” by defeat of ISIS terrorism, but in truth by control of the eastern province’s oil fields. Whatever oil fields the SDF can gain control of in the wake of Islamic State’s retreat will then used as powerful bargaining leverage in negotiating a post-ISIS Syria. The Kurdish and Arab coalition just this week captured Tabiyeh and al-Isba oil and gas fields northeast of Deir Ezzor city.
The race is underway for Syria’s most oil rich province. Syrian War Report (9/22/17) courtesy of SouthFront.
At various times the Syrian-Russian side has come under mortar fire from SDF positions, even as Russia and the US are theoretically said to coordinate through a special military hotline. The SDF for its part claims it too has come under attack from the Syrian Army. The most significant event occurred just over a year ago when the US coalition launched a massive air attack on Syrian government troops in Deir Ezzor near the city’s military airport at the very moment they were fighting ISIS. The US characterized it as a case of mistaken identity while Syria accused the US coalition of directly aiding ISIS by the attack. The end result was about 100 Syrian soldiers dead and over a hundred more wounded while ISIS terrorists were able to advance and entrench their positions.
Though US officials disclosed few elements of this week’s unusual meeting, the US side did confirm Russia’s threat of returning fire should Syrian soldiers come under attack. US coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon confirmed that, “They had a face-to-face discussion, laid down maps and graphics.” But the Russians publicly delivered further details outlining its message to the US military. Russian Major-General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement,“A representative of the U.S. military command in Al Udeid (the U.S. operations center in Qatar) was told in no uncertain terms that any attempts to open fire from areas where SDF fighters are located would be quickly shut down.” He added that, “Fire points in those areas will be immediately suppressed with all military means.” Russia has further openly accused the US of violating previously agreed to ‘de-escalation’ zones in Idlib (as part of Astana talks) using al-Qaeda proxies to engaged the Syrian Army in Idlib.
The US coalition hinted in its statements that future military-to-military talks could continue regarding coordination in Syria. Though Russian warnings sound alarmist, and though the situation is increasingly very dangerous for the prospect of escalation, the US side appears to be in a vulnerable enough position to listen. The fact that the meeting occurred in the first place and was publicly acknowledged by the Pentagon is hugely significant as a US ban on such direct military talks was put in place after the collapse in relations between the two nations following the outbreak of the Ukraine proxy war in 2014.
In reality some degree of US-Russian back channel communication and intelligence sharing probably existed long before the SDF made gains in Syria’s east – this according to Seymour Hersh’s 2016 investigation entitled, “Military to Military”. Though (ironically) the CIA’s push for regime change against Damascus was still operational and presumably in full gear at that time, the Pentagon’s actions in Syria were always perhaps more humble regarding pursuit of regime change.
But what are current Pentagon plans for its SDF proxy?
It’s no secret that the core component force of the SDF – the Kurdish YPG – has at times loosely cooperated with the Syrian government when the situation pragmatically served both sides. At the same time Damascus has over the past few years recognized the Kurds as a militarily effective buffer against both ISIS and other powerful jihadist groups like al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. While many Russian and pro-Damascus analysts have accused the SDF of being a mere pawn of US imperialism meant to permanently Balkanize the region, this is only partially true – the truth is likely more nuanced.
No doubt, the US is laying plenty of concrete in the form of forward operating bases across Kurdish held areas of northern and eastern Syria (currently about a dozen or more). And no doubt the US is enabling the illegal seizure of oil fields formerly held by the Islamic State, but Kurdish and US interests are not necessarily one and the same. The Kurds know that the best they can hope for in a post-war Syria is a federated system which allows Kurdish areas a high degree of autonomy. They also know, as decades of experience has taught them, that they will eventually be dumped by the US should the political cost of support grow too high or become untenable. For now the Kurds are gobbling up as many oil fields as possible before they are inevitably forced to cut deals with Damascus.
Though the US endgame is the ultimate million dollar question in all of this, it appears at least for now that this endgame has something to do with the Pentagon forcing itself into a place of affecting the Syrian war’s outcome and final apportionment of power: the best case scenario being permanent US bases under a Syrian Kurdish federated zone with favored access to Syrian oil doled out by Kurdish partners. While this is the ‘realist’ scenario, there’s of course always the question that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan could one day be realized out of the merging of Kurdish northern Iraq and Syria. But this would be nothing less than a geopolitical miracle. For now, early voting has begun in the Kurdish diaspora ahead of the planned for September 25th referendum on Kurdish independence, with the very first votes reportedly being cast in China.