A few miles apart in the Euphrates River valley, Russia and the U.S. are fighting separate military campaigns against Islamic State — and an underlying strategic battle with each other, whose outcome could reshape the Middle East.
The Syrian civil war reached another tipping point last week when Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed army arrived at the city of Deir Ezzor on the Euphrates, breaking an Islamic State siege that lasted almost three years. Further east across the river, and still held by the jihadists, lie some of Syria’s main oilfields.
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 American counter-move. U.S.-armed militias peeled off from their own fight against ISIS in the jihadist capital of Raqqa, to embark on a high-speed drive toward Deir Ezzor. They advanced 150 miles in 24 hours, the American-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-to-be 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 Islamic State, and they’ve mostly avoided coming to blows. That’s because American-backed fighters are focused on the jihadists, 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 Islamic State, 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.
Trump or Putin?
There’s no sign that 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 Islamic State.
Pro-American forces in Syria are dominated by Kurds who seek self-government 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 Islamic State is defeated, so Kurdish aspirations may eventually require a deal with Assad and the Russians.
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.’’
‘Blood and Soul’
Russia and Iran rescued Assad when he looked at risk of losing, and helped his army regain large parts of Syria from jihadists and other rebels backed by the West and the Gulf states. The alliance has remained solid through six years of a war that’s left hundreds of thousands of people dead and displaced half the country’s population.
The battle for the Deir Ezzor region may be one of its final phases. In the city itself, where tens of thousands of civilians were encircled by Islamic State, fighting against the jihadists persists.
There had been speculation that the U.S. side might get to Deir Ezzor 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 Ezzor 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 signals that Assad intends to reimpose his authority on the whole country, instead of presiding over a rump state.
“Deir Ezzor 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 Ezzor 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.