It’s ‘Ber­lin 1945’: Rus­sia, U.S. race for last cor­ner of Syria

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE - By Henry Meyer, Donna Abu-Nasr, Nick Wad­hams and Ilya Arkhipov

A few kilo­me­ters apart in the Euphrates River val­ley, Rus­sia and the United States are fight­ing sep­a­rate mil­i­tary cam­paigns against Daesh (ISIS) – and an un­der­ly­ing strate­gic bat­tle with each other, the out­come of which could re­shape the Mid­dle East.

The Syr­ian civil war reached an­other tip­ping point last week when Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s Rus­sian-backed army ar­rived at the city of Deir al-Zor on the Euphrates, break­ing a Daesh siege that had lasted al­most three years.

Farther east across the river, and still held by the mil­i­tants, lie some of Syria’s main oil fields.

And be­yond that is the bor­der with Iraq – mak­ing the ter­ri­tory cru­cial for As­sad’s other main spon­sors. The Ira­ni­ans pro­vide many of his shock troops. In re­turn, they want a land cor­ri­dor in friendly hands along which they can ex­ert in­flu­ence, and de­liver weapons, all the way from Tehran to the Mediter­ranean.

That’s an out­come U.S. al­lies in the re­gion, chiefly Is­rael and Saudi Ara­bia, are des­per­ate to pre­vent.

A few days later came the U.S. coun­ter­move. U.S.-armed mili­tias peeled off from their own fight against Daesh in the mil­i­tant’s cap­i­tal of Raqqa, to em­bark on a high­speed drive to­ward Deir al-Zor.

They ad­vanced 240 kilo­me­ters in 24 hours, the U.S.-led coali­tion said on Sept. 10.

For more than one Rus­sian ob­server, there’s an ob­vi­ous his­tor­i­cal par­al­lel.

“It’s like the bat­tle for Ber­lin, where Soviet troops marched from one side, and the Al­lies on the other,” said Frants Klint­se­vich, deputy head of the de­fense com­mit­tee in Rus­sia’s up­per house of Par­lia­ment. He was re­fer­ring to the cli­mac­tic phase of World War II, when the two soon-tobe su­per­pow­ers were fight­ing the same Nazi en­emy, but also com­pet­ing for con­trol over post­war Europe.

Of course the Syr­ian con­flict is on a much smaller scale. Rus­sian and U.S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel in the coun­try prob­a­bly num­ber a few thou­sand on each side; their planes pro­vide air sup­port, while the ground fight­ing is done by lo­cal al­lies with their own agen­das.

The ri­val blocs have a shared en­emy in Daesh, and they’ve mostly avoided com­ing to blows. That’s be­cause U.S.-backed fight­ers are fo­cused on the mil­i­tants, and they’re not there to take on As­sad’s army, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the mat­ter. It’s not a race to cap­ture ter­ri­tory but a race to de­feat Daesh, the of­fi­cial said.

So far, the two sides have been able to main­tain an un­der­stand­ing that gov­erns which forces go where.

Still, such ar­range­ments haven’t been worked out for the area east of the Euphrates, and the U.S. is con­cerned about the in­flu­ence that Iran might ac­quire if the land cor­ri­dor be­came en­trenched, the of­fi­cial said.

There’s no sign that U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump will act on those con­cerns. While he prom­ises to get tougher on Iran in gen­eral, Trump says that in Syria, his over­whelm­ing pri­or­ity is to de­stroy Daesh.

Pro-Amer­i­can forces in Syria are dom­i­nated by Kurds who seek self­gov­ern­ment after the war. Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for the

Kur­dish-led mili­tia, said they’ll try to pre­vent As­sad’s army from gain­ing ground east of the Euphrates.

Yet the bat­tle for Raqqa has al­ready taken the Kurds out­side their home­lands. Push­ing to­ward the Iraqi bor­der would involve fight­ing for more Arab-pop­u­lated land that they’d be un­likely to hold onto. There’s also no guar­an­tee the U.S. will stick around in Syria once Daesh is de­feated, so Kur­dish as­pi­ra­tions may even­tu­ally re­quire a deal with As­sad and the Rus­sians.

America’s Mideast al­lies are turn­ing to Moscow too, hop­ing that Vladimir Putin might rein in Iran even if Trump can’t or won’t. Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu told the Rus­sian pres­i­dent last month that Iran’s grow­ing foothold in Syria is “un­ac­cept­able” and said Is­rael will act if its “red lines” were crossed. Last week, Is­raeli planes struck a Syr­ian mil­i­tary base.

Saudi Ara­bia has raised sim­i­lar con­cerns. Both coun­tries will prob­a­bly be dis­ap­pointed. Rus­sian at­ten­tion may be turn­ing to­ward a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment, but shoring up As­sad is still a key goal.

“The Ira­ni­ans are the boots on the ground,” said Sami Nader, head of the Le­vant In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Af­fairs in Beirut. “The Rus­sians need them. They can’t an­tag­o­nize them.”

Rus­sia and Iran res­cued As­sad when he looked at risk of los­ing, and helped his army re­gain large parts of Syria from mil­i­tants and other rebels backed by the West and the Gulf states. The alliance has re­mained solid through six years of a war that has left hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple dead and dis­placed half the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion.

The bat­tle for the Deir al-Zor re­gion may be one of its fi­nal phases. In the city it­self, where tens of thou­sands of civil­ians were en­cir­cled by Daesh, fight­ing against the mil­i­tants per­sists. There had been spec­u­la­tion that the U.S. side might get to Deir al-Zor first. In­stead it was the Syr­ian army that reached the city on Sept. 5. Video on the state news agency SANA cap­tured the mo­ment. Sol­diers from the be­sieged gar­ri­son ex­changed hugs with the lib­er­at­ing force. “With our blood and soul we sac­ri­fice for you, Bashar,” they chanted.

Rus­sian De­fense Min­is­ter Sergei Shoigu went to Da­m­as­cus this week to de­liver Putin’s con­grat­u­la­tions to As­sad. The al­lies reaf­firmed their de­ter­mi­na­tion to “com­plete the de­struc­tion of the ter­ror­ist group” in Syria, the De­fense Min­istry in Moscow said.

The Deir al-Zor re­gion’s eco­nomic po­ten­tial may be even more im­por­tant than Iran’s land cor­ri­dor, of­fer­ing ac­cess to oil, fer­tile land and trade with Iraq, said Ay­ham Kamel, Mid­dle East and North Africa di­rec­tor at Eura­sia Group. He said that tak­ing the east­ern city also has a wider sig­nif­i­cance for As­sad. It’s a coun­ter­point to his re­cap­ture of the for­mer com­mer­cial cap­i­tal Aleppo, in western Syria, from rebels in De­cem­ber. And it in­di­cates As­sad intends to reim­pose his author­ity on the whole coun­try, in­stead of pre­sid­ing over a rump state. “Deir al-Zor sym­bol­izes that the regime wants all of Syria,” Kamel said. Out­side the city, whose once-famed bridges have been de­stroyed, the next ad­vance is al­ready un­der­way. A van­guard of Syr­ian troops reached the east bank of the Euphrates, as Rus­sian-made pon­toons were hauled to the river so that the main force could cross it, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal me­dia.

An As­sad vic­tory in Deir al-Zor will “trans­form the bal­ance of forces on the ground,” said An­drei Kor­tunov, head of the Rus­sian In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs Coun­cil, a Moscow-based re­search group set up by the Krem­lin. “It makes it dif­fi­cult for the Amer­i­cans to con­tinue work­ing in Syria.”

The Syr­ian civil war reached an­other tip­ping point last week.

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