US and Russia compete in Syria on “reducing escalation” and “safe zones”

The “Shiite Crescent” will not break at Al-Tanaf and al-Bu Kamal border crossing

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Damascus By Elijah J. Magnier: 

There is no doubt that the main players (Russia and America) are competing in Syria to secure their interests and the interests of their allies in a country that was once, before 2011, called the Levant; the unity of that country is now uncertain. The partition of Syria between the two superpowers (and Turkey) seems somehow unambiguous and the sorting of the population – according to allegiance, not according to religion – casts a threatening shadow. The war in Syria is not primarily a religious sectarian war but a war for power and control.

The Syrian Sunnis represent more than 70 per cent of Syria’s population. Many support the government, live under its protection, within its controlled area, along with other religions and atheists. The majority of these fight within the Syrian Army ranks and are killed defending the unity of the country. Other Syrians abandoned the army and their country, while others decided to fight against Damascus and live in rebel and jihadist-controlled areas. These rebel and Jihadists controlled-areas host only Sunni and will not tolerate other religions, yet, with the exception of the south of Syria (Suweida’) and other smaller pockets, they had been tolerated up till today.

There are millions of refugees and internally displaced Syrians who will remain as such for many years to come. Whoever is fighting in Syria alongside with both belligerents cannot change the demographic structure of the population and the Sunnis will remain a majority, with around 13 million out of 18.5 million Syrians.

Even yesterday’s allies, such as the Syrian pro-Saudi Arabia rebels, “the Army of Islam”, Jihadists of “Faylaq al-rahman” and al-Qaeda (Hay’atTahrir al-Sham) are now fighting each other for the control of al-Ghouta, around Damascus. The continuous infighting among Sunni rebels for the control of the north of Syria and rural Damascus hasn’t stopped throughout these last years, whereas no infighting has been registered in the area under Damascus’s control since the beginning of the war.

Russia and the US are careless about Syrian infighting, they don’t take it seriously (enough): Washington is aiming for multi-faceted “buffer zones”, while Moscow wants “de-conflict areas” that allow a possible rapid and possibly permanent stability in Syria to ensure the safety of its troops, especially now that it has ensured a window to the Middle East and direct long term access to warm waters (the Mediterranean,) that also flank Turkey – a NATO country! The de-conflict areas deal discussed in Astana- Kazakhstan (several meetings were previously held in Tehran in this regard) helps Russia to initiate a new phase, following the cease-fire last year, to try and really establish it and keep the initiative under its control.


The United States “buffer zones”:

The Syrian steppe or al-Badia al-Surya, is where US forces, backed by Syrian forces’ proxies from the “Maghaweer al-Thawra” are trying to take control of various scattered areas and villages in the semi-desert south-east part of Syria. These have reached the Syrian-Iraqi border crossing of al-Tanaf and are heading towards al-Bu Qamal. While Russia clearly expressed its determination to stop the US proxies from controlling, not only al-Tanaf crossing, but also the main city of Deer-ezzour, creating a real clash of interest between Moscow and Washington in Syria.

Special Forces from Washington and London trained these Syrian groups with the help of Jordan and launched these from the borders of Daraa and Suwayda (on the Jordanian-Syrian border) with the aim of cutting the road for the “Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units” (PMU) coming from Iraq. The west – and Saudi Arabia – fears the PMU intention to push forces into the Syrian territory in support of the besieged city of Deir-ezzour and to defeat the “Islamic State,” (ISIS) besieging the city for years. But according to decision makers in Baghdad, the decision has been made: no PMU forces are to cross Syrian borders. The PMU is made of almost 60% Shia and around 40% Sunni, Turkman and other Iraqi minorities, reflecting the exact composition of the Iraqi demography (and Parliament). Those who joined the PMU are now under the Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s direct command. Abadi has no intention of following ISIS beyond the Iraqi borders unless the group uses Syria as a platform to attack Iraq. Only if and when ISIS is defeated in Iraq, and with the consensus of Damascus, can Baghdad forces hit ISIS beyond its national borders. The 19 brigades of the PMU cannot behave as an independent body since they have been incorporated within the Iraqi security forces structure. Those groups who fight along with the PMU and are volunteers, but belong to Iraqi political groups, are not part of the PMU body and could move to Syria, depending on Damascus’s needs.

Sources in Baghdad said, “Iraqi security forces can pursue ISIS on land or air only if and when the Prime Minister gives orders to do so. If ISIS attacks Iraq from Syrian territory, Baghdad will seek Damascus’s approval to hit ISIS. This happened before and can happen in the future”.

Thus, the “Shiite Crescent” feared by Washington, Israel and Saudi Arabia can be cut geographically but in fact neither morally nor effectively, because the cooperation between Baghdad – Damascus – Tehran and Beirut exists and will not be stopped by US-UK-Jordanian-Syrian proxies forces on the borders of al-Tanaf and al-Bu Kamal. However, the presence of forces hostile to Damascus on the Iraqi-Syrian border satisfies Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, the deployment of thousands of Syrian pro-US forces in the Syrian steppe – no matter how many they are and how well armed they can be – does not constitute the weight of a military effect: this semi-desert region extends to tens of thousands of square kilometres and was used by ISIS for years, even and during the 2003 US occupation of Iraq, at the time when it was called al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. We may therefore conclude that no force can keep tight control of the Syrian Desert, linked as it is with the desert of Anbar in Iraq, and the Jordanian and the Saudi deserts as well. Moreover, Russia has still a lot to say about this specific area, excluded from the de-escalation zones. Therefore, the Russian and Syrian Air Force have free hands to bomb the area and prevent US proxies from occupying it.


Al-Hasaka and Raqqah Governorates:

Al-Hasaka and Raqqah provinces cover more than 41,000 square kilometres. The US is trying to find a homogenous formula to protect its future long-standing presence in the former Levant (Syria). Therefore, the United States is sending more of its Special Forces to Syria – with the title “military advisers” – and injecting military equipment to arm, train and support the Arab tribal forces and the Kurds. These operate under the label “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) and have the aim to recover Raqqah province from ISIS and expel the group from the city and its rural area.

However, Washington and its allied Syrian forces are trying to push ISIS inland, south of Raqqah, and more specifically towards Homs province where the Syrian army forces and its allies operate. This US tactic is expected to succeed and to bring a victory to President Donald Trump during his first year in power: Mosul and Raqqah are expected to fall before the end of Trump’s first year in office. Thus, the US president will celebrate his “victory” over ISIS in the two main cities it has occupied for years, without necessarily eliminating that organisation in either Syria and Iraq.

Washington will thus be diverting international attention from its occupation of new territory in Bilad al-Sham with the excuse of “protecting the Kurds, the Arab tribes, and defeating ISIS”. The US is planning to have static military bases in Syria and share its presence in the Levant with Russia, and, in small part, with Turkey which plays a prominent role with the Syrian opposition and Al Qaeda in the north of Syria.

Washington achieves one of its most important objectives (shared by its allies) by finding an area of ​​influence in the heart of the “axis of resistance” (Iran – Hezbollah – Syria) and in the centre of the “Shiite Crescent” (Tehran – Baghdad – Damascus – Beirut). It has created a footprint for its ally Israel inside the Syrian territory (not only on the Syrian border or in the occupied Golan Heights).

However, the battle with the axis is not yet over, it is only the beginning: the US liberated Tehran from Saddam Hussein in 2003 and now it is defeating ISIS, the Shia’s cruellest enemy. Once the war in Syria is over, this axis will have time to reorganise, reassess the situation and deal with the US forces in Syria.

At the moment, the race towards Deir-ezzour – between the US (and its proxies) and Russia (along with the Syrian Army and its allies) – may change Washington’s plans on the Syrian-Iraqi borders. The US aims to cut the borders and control Deir-ezzour, while Russia wants to spoil the US objectives by pushing ground troops from Palmyra towards the same besieged city of Deir-ezzour.

Although Moscow and Washington agreed to regain the suspended de-conflict agreement above Syria lack of trust prevails between the two superpowers. “There is almost no trust between us and Russia, but the US administration will deal with each issue separately starting from Syria. We do not know where this cooperation will lead us.” This was stated by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who made the remarks to staff at the State Department in Washington on May 3 in a wide-ranging presentation about the department’s future under President Donald Trump.




Moscow, in cooperation with Ankara, Tehran and Damascus, reached an agreement in the Kazakh capital of Astana by establishing “de-conflict areas” which include the entire city of Idlib and parts of Aleppo (south-western and north-west), the rural Lattakia, rural Homs and Daraa-Quneitra (south of Syria). This agreement – even if not strictly implemented or not long-lasting in its early stages – has laid the foundation for an important starting point, for all countries involved in the Syrian conflict.

Damascus agreed, and Russia and all the countries that have signed the agreement have engaged to the cessation of hostilities as long as the belligerent parties respect the deal. But above all, Moscow (Iran and Turkey), by imposing a “no-Fly-Zone” against the US over parts of Syria, is saying to Washington: I am in control over (most parts of) Syria.

It is normal that the hostilities do not stop for the day, the week or the first month, especially as Al-Qa’ida (under the name of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham), excluded by this agreement, controls a large part of al-Ghouta (around Damascus) and an important part of rural Homs and Idlib (northern Syria), and areas in the south of Syria. It is natural that al-Qaeda continues to try to achieve its objectives and to continue the war, because peace does not give it fertile ground to continue. It is also not possible to believe that the US will allow Russia and its allies to move in towards the province of Deir-ezzour without a reaction. Nor will it be easy for Turkey to separate the moderate opposition from the jihadists (with more infighting between rebels and jihadists expected). Moreover, the absence of a clear political solution offers few chances for an immediate “cessation of escalation”.

The participants agreed to freeze the Syrian and Russian air forces from bombing those areas (giving everyone a real break) until a comprehensive solution to the war is reached, as long as there are no serious violations of the deal. The de-escalation deal is offering the Syrian Army and its allies a perfect situation to attack both al-Qaeda and ISIS in all areas outside the agreement zones, as well as the US and Turkish proxies outside these designated areas.

It is natural that all parties are tired of this war, which each team considers to have been imposed on it, and will continue fighting as long as the goals are not fulfilled or the backers cease the finance. But a kind of partition between loyalists and opposition has been achieved. The pro-government areas are almost devoid of any opposition. The opposition and jihadists – controlled areas are devoid of any demographic or sectarian diversity, and are dominated by Sunni with multiple loyalties (pro-Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, US). The green buses – the most recent concern the cities along the Syrian-Lebanese borders, al-Wa’ar neighbourhood of Homs, Barca and more similar on-going evacuation around Damascus – have transported all those who wish to disengage from the Syrian government, causing a significant and permanent demographic change that will not recover even if the war ends in the near future.

The Russian “de-conflict areas” face the US “buffer zones” in a situation where the two nuclear superpowers do not trust each other and have opposite plans. But it is likely that Washington and Moscow will agree to divide their areas of influence without their forces colliding with each other, as they did successfully for decades in Berlin after World War II. The military operation is taking place today in several “contested areas”. Damascus, Tehran and Russia are in a race to regain as much territory as possible before any global “cessation of hostilities”.

It is unfortunately to be expected that the Levant will not return to how it was before. Indeed, conflicts are expected to persist on its soil even if the war were to cease tomorrow.


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