By: Patrick Hoover, Columnist
Photo Credit: Daily Sabah
The race to rule eastern Syria after the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is quickly and quietly escalating into a focal point of US-Russian tension and competition. The US-backed, Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Russian-backed Syrian regime are conducting separate, but competing, offensives in Deir al-Zour Province, ISIS’ last remaining territorial stronghold. The United States and Russia must not only jointly work toward de-confliction, but also recognize the dangerous fluidity and deep influence of local dynamics in shaping the post-ISIS future.
Deepening Mistrust and Confrontation
To be clear, a US-Russia showdown in Syria is not desired by either actor. Following the US downing of a Syrian Su-22 jet fighter over Raqqa city in mid-June 2017, Russian and US top-level diplomats agreed to a broad de-confliction process. Central to this process is a “Joint Implementation Center,” in which both sides theoretically share and coordinate targeting missions on ISIS militants.[i]
Despite these cooperative measures, the relative success of both US- and Russian-led offensives has forced their local partners increasingly close to one another. Following its annihilation of rebel forces in eastern Aleppo in late December 2016, the Syrian regime launched an offensive into eastern Syria through the vast Hamad Desert and along the southwestern bank of the Euphrates River. Simultaneously, the SDF and its Deir al-Zour contingent, the Deir al-Zour Military Council (DZMC), moved along the northeastern bank of the Euphrates and down the Khabour River Valley. Both camps now lie within a few kilometers of each other, with the rest of southeastern Syria on the border with Iraq up for grabs.
The increasing territorial convergence of the two sides has resulted in mutual accusations and points of contention, particularly around Deir al-Zour city. On September 18, 2017, the Russian- and Iranian-backed Fifth Corps crossed the northeastern bank of the Euphrates River near Deir al-Zour city, dispelling any notion that the Euphrates could serve as a credible de-confliction line.[ii] On the same day, Russian officials blamed the death of Lieutenant General Valery Asapov, (killed by an ISIS mortar strike in Deir al-Zour city) on the United States, criticizing it for allowing ISIS to focus its energies on regime, rather than SDF, forces.[iii] Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov told Russian media that, “the closer the end of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS], the more clear it is who is really fighting with ISIS and who has been imitating this fight for three years.…so, if the US-led coalition does not want to fight against terrorism in Syria, let it just be out of the way.”[iv] Several days prior, the United States had accused Russian warplanes of targeting SDF troops within a few kilometers of US Special Operations Forces.[v]
Competition for Oil and Gas
Underlying US-Russia tensions are the unique resources of Deir al-Zour Province. A key flashpoint is Deir al-Zour’s immense oil and gas reserves, which constituted nearly 21.5% of the Syrian state’s prewar revenue.[vi] Some of the region’s most productive oil fields—the Al-Omar, Jabisah, Kabibah, Rumeilan, and Tanak on the northeastern bank of the Euphrates—already lie under SDF control; this is important to the SDF and to the Kurds, for whom greater economic control denotes greater leverage over the regime in a post-war settlement. Crossing the Euphrates signals the regime’s clear intent to capture what is not yet controlled by the SDF. For the regime, capturing these oil and gas fields is an essential step in the long process of rebuilding the country after six years of civil conflict. Regime control is equally important to Russia, whose main objective is to secure their regional influence; in fact, a Kremlin-linked energy firm has already won a 25% stake in the Syrian oil sector.[vii]
Managing the Tribal Factor
Deir al-Zour Province is also known for its tribal character. Effectively holding captured oil and gas infrastructure may require the co-optation of the region’s powerful clans and tribes, some of which—such as the Sh’aitat and Bakir— claimed ownership of energy resources at the onset of the revolution.[viii] Both the regime and the SDF must face the prospect that these tribes could reassert their claims as ISIS continues to lose territory. Gaining tribal support—by arming militias or dispensing political patronage, for example—has become a necessity for the regime and SDF to sustain successes.
However, current regime and SDF tribal co-optation strategies appear to be backfiring by fracturing broader intra-tribal hierarchies and inter-tribal relations, opening the door for instability. For example, Baggara tribal Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir sided with the regime to form his own Iranian-trained militia, and one of the regime’s most influential commanders, Major General Issam Zahreddine, leads the Sh’aitat-affiliated Jaysh al-Ash’air.[ix] At the same time, a number of Baggara tribesmen in the Abdel ‘Aziz Mountains north of Deir al-Zour Province remain loyal to the SDF, while a group of Baggara and Sh’aitat tribesmen recently joined the DZMC.[x] Further fragmentation of tribal loyalties increases the risk of intra-tribal feuds and post-war bloodletting, forcing the regime and the SDF—and thus Russia and the United States—to take on the delicate task of constraining local tribal allies.
A secondary, and more long-term, driver of Syrian instability is Iran and its ally, Hezbollah. The forward deployment of Iranian and Iranian-backed Shi’a forces in Deir al-Zour Province not only worries the predominantly Sunni tribes in the region, but also the United States. Establishing control over the border with Western Iraq would give Iran the opportunity to secure a Tehran-Beirut “land bridge” of Iranian influence.
As the United States continues to engage with Russia on joint anti-ISIS efforts in eastern Syria, it must stress concerns over potential local and regional fallout of a post-ISIS scenario. Any major conflict between the regime and the SDF or among tribal groups is likely to recreate the power vacuum that ISIS previously exploited between 2014 and 2015 to build its ‘caliphate.’ Ensuring this does not occur is in all actors’ interests, but the real danger lies in the lack of consensus on how to do so.
[i] David E. Sanger and Anne Barnard, “Russia and the United States Reach New Agreement on Syria Conflict,” New York Times, September 09, 2017, accessed September 21, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/10/world/middleeast/syria-john-kerry-ceasefire-deal-russia.html
[iii] “Moscow blames ‘two-faced U.S. policy’ for Russian general’s Syria death: RIA,” Reuters , September 25, 2017, accessed September 30, 2017. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-casualtie/moscow-blames-two-faced-u-s-policy-for-russian-generals-syria-death-ria-idUSKCN1C01W6?il=0
[v] Erin Cunnigham and David Filipov, “U.S. allies accus Russia of strikes in eastern Syria,” Washington Post, September 25, 2017, accessed September 30, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/us-allies-accuse-russia-of-strikes-in-eastern-syria/2017/09/25/6bcbbab0-a1ff-11e7-b573-8ec86cdfe1ed_story.html
[vi] “Syrian Arab Republic: 2009 Article IV Consultation—Staff Report; and Public Information Notice,” International Monetary Fund, March 2010, accessed September 30, 2017. http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2010/cr1086.pdf
[ix] “The Assad regime entrust the mercenary ‘Nawaf al-Bashir’ to form a tribal militia in the eastern region,” Deirezor24, June 14, 2017, accessed September 30, 2017. http://en.deirezzor24.net/the-assad-regime-entrust-the-mercenary-nawaf-al-bashir-to-form-a-tribal-militia-in-the-eastern-region/
[x] “Syrian rebels desert opposition-led all-Arab force, join SDF,” Ara News, August 27 2017, accessed September 30, 2017. http://www.aranews.net/2017/08/syrian-rebel-fighters-desert-opposition-led-arab-force-join-sdf/