Conflicting forces accelerate events in northeastern Syria

The US troops in Syria (Reuters)

The US troops in Syria (Reuters)


Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

Last week saw accelerating events in northeastern Syria, after an American-Russian clash, and repeated targetting of the National Defense Militia (NDF), which led to the deaths of two NDF leaders and a Russian major general. 

In northeastern Syria, there are several forces—some of them have alliances— struggling over power and influence. This reflects the changing political situation. 

Russia and Turkey are allies in their joint patrols after the “Sochi” agreement, signed between the presidents of the two countries, on 22 November 2019, which ended “Operation Peace Spring,” launched by the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), on 9 October 2019. 

On the other hand, Washington and Moscow conflict, sometimes directly, and often via their local proxies, represented by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Russian-backed Syrian regime forces. 

Turkey considers the SDF as “a terrorist organization,” and therefore, there are frequent clashes between the two sides. In addition, the cells of the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, which all forces see as a target, are also active. 

Targeting the Russians and the Syrian regime: IS is not the only suspect

The IS group claimed responsibility for targeting the Russian Major General, Vyacheslav Gladkikh, with an improvised explosive device on 18 August, which led to his death and the injury of three Russian soldiers. 

The commander of the NDF in the city of al-Mayadin, Muhammad Tayseer al-Zahir, was also killed in the explosion, along with four of his elements.

On 28 August, Nizar al-Kharfan, the commander of the western sector of the NDF in the countryside of Deir Ezzor, was killed after his group was ambushed by unknown persons in the countryside of Deir Ezzor.

The Russian officer is considered one of the Russian highest ranks that Moscow has lost in recent months in Syria.

Despite the absence of accurate information about the identity of who planted the explosive device in the area, and the precise details of the Russian patrol’s presence at the site of the explosion, the targeting reflects the high frequency of IS operations in the region, Badr Mulla Rashid, a researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies (OCSS) told Enab Baladi

However, not all attacks in Deir Ezzor governorate, especially in the countryside of the city, can be attributed to IS.

There is an international competition of several forms in the region; the Syrian regime’s own allies, Russia and Iran, attempt to increase influence in the countryside of Deir Ezzor. The Syrian regime forces are not an organized military formation, but rather are “militia” military groups whose objectives and interests differ, in addition to the presence of the international coalition forces to fight the “IS” group on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

The “extremist” organizations use guerrilla warfare tactics after they end their control over urban areas and adopt specific or dispersed targeting operations to end the state of stability and security for the other side, according to researcher Badr Mulla Rashid.

The geographical nature, and the different parties controlling the two banks of the Euphrates River, allowed for the existence of a massive security gap that was exploited by the IS elements to move or benefit from the state of local disputes between the clans and tribes and the weakness of coordination and competition between the international coalition on the one hand, and Moscow and Iran on the other hand.

Nevertheless, the collapse of the “Syrian state” and its military and security system, and its transformation into a fully “militia” state, remains one of the most important factors allowing “extremist” organizations to re-surge, according to researcher Badr Mulla Rashid.

This is indicated by the Russian operation that it launched in the Syrian desert under the name “White Desert,” after the killing of the Russian officer, in the area extending from eastern Homs to the “Euphrates” River, which is geographically broad, and it is difficult to fully cover it under the leadership of Russia, through scattered fighting groups of the regime forces.

A Russian-American clash for political-military reasons

On 24 August, the collision of a Russian patrol in the northeast of al-Hasakeh with an American vehicle led to a skirmish between the two parties, which ended after a Russian helicopter maneuver meters above the American checkpoint, as a tactic commonly used militarily to disperse individuals on the ground.

As a result of the incident, several US troops suffered concussive symptoms in the brain, an unnamed official in the “Pentagon,” told “Reuters.”

The researcher, Badr Mulla Rashid, explained the clash between the two patrols from two angles, the first due to the presence of political factors, including recent statements by US officials managing the Syrian file, while they were in Turkey, standing by Ankara in Idlib, such as the US special envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, and the US State Department’s special envoy for Syrian affairs, Joel Rayburn, and what was discussed during the latter’s meeting with the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) that Washington’s policy in Syria is directed against Bashar al-Assad, and its criticism of the opposition’s hostility to SDF. 

In addition, Washington is involved in intense dialogues between the Kurdish parties and the rest of the region’s components, with the start of activating the US sanctions, known as the Ceasar Law and allowing the SDF to contract with an American company to bring oil refineries to their areas of control.

The second angle is the Russian military expansion in the region, to complete its gains following Operation Peace Spring, as the agreement with Turkey, on 22 November 2019, allowed Russia to enter the east of the Euphrates for the first time in years.

Russia wants access to the oil fields and stations in the region more, as well as on the Tel Kujer- al-Yarubiyah crossing, which is the crossing that it “dropped” from the humanitarian access points at the United Nations.

Coordination or conflict resolution?

The Russians and the Americans agree on how to coordinate their presence in the region. The Russian Chief of Staff highlighted that the American side violated the agreement between the two parties, without giving details about the nature of their agreement. Besides, there was also a contact between the chiefs of staff of the two countries, and what happened during the call was not disclosed either. 

Therefore, according to researcher Badr Mulla Rashid, it appears that the two sides will continue to try to tighten each other, with more caution than causing any new injuries.

Moscow may exploit the atmosphere of the US elections and increase its pressure on American soldiers in the region, in an attempt to push their leadership to withdraw them from the region, in a reality in which the US President, Donald Trump, is proud that he is returning American forces to the country, and that he is not prepared to lose American soldiers abroad, It is a position that the US Defense Department is trying to weaken and reduce Trump’s influence in it as much as possible, according to the researcher.

However, the two parties did not agree on a single designation that would frame the mechanism of communications between the two countries’ military forces on Syrian soil, to prevent any clash, or in the event of any problem or objection between them.

The US escalated the severity of its description of the presence of the two most prominent military forces in the world by calling it the “conflict resolution” mechanism. This description indicates that the US is not satisfied with the presence of the Russians near their areas of control, especially in the oil-rich areas, east of the Euphrates.

This was exemplified in the manner in which the American military patrols have dealt with the interception of their Russian counterparts several times since the beginning of this year.

The interception of the American patrols against their Russian counterparts, in some cases, led to skirmishes and friction between the two parties, which did not result in any deaths or injuries.

However, the Russians, in some cases, cut off the road to American patrols, and thus the dispute also developed into a show of forces through the air force.

On the other hand, the Russian side considered the matter as a kind of coordination between the Russian and American forces, which was practically reflected on the ground, as no case of interception initiated by the Russians on the American troops was registered.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grishko said that the United States does not want to call them “coordination processes,” but rather a “conflict resolution mechanism” for political reasons, according to Sputnik, a Russian state-controlled news agency.

Russia has established a hotline for communication between its military forces and the rest of the foreign parties present on the Syrian territories, since it announced the start of military operations in Syria alongside the regime forces in late September 2015.

At the beginning of October 2015, a Russian warplane approached a few miles from an American warplane in Syrian airspace over the city of Aleppo, which almost led to a collision between the two warplanes.

On 20 October 2015, the Pentagon announced that the US and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding that includes many rules and restrictions aimed at avoiding collisions between Russian and American aircraft in the Syrian airspace, without giving further details.

The communication process crystallized by setting up a hotline between the two military forces to prevent any military clash.

The commander of the US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, described the  memorandum of understanding aimed to avoid a clash with the Russians, as “neither cooperation nor coordination.”


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