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