By Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai
Following the failure of the Iraqi Kurdish referendum and of the project to divide Iraq, the role Syria is playing comes up next for examination, even as the “Islamic State” group (ISIS) is slowly disintegrating, cornered in the border area between Deir Al-Zour and Al-bu Kamal. However, the United States seems determined to hold on to part of the Syrian territory, allowing the Syrian Kurds to control northeast Syria, especially those areas rich in oil and gas. Will this enable the US to impose a political agenda on Damascus at the end of the war?
US-backed forces advanced in north-eastern areas under ISIS control, with little or no military engagement: ISIS pulled out from more than 28 villages and oil and gas fields east of the Euphrates River, surrendering these to the Kurdish-US forces following an understanding these reached with the terrorist group. This deal was an effective way to prevent the control by the Syrian army and the resulting situation could then be later used to blackmail Damascus.
It is noteworthy that an agreement, on one hand, between the US and their Kurdish subordinated forces operating under its command, and ISIS on the other was reached with the support of local Arab tribes, the Syrian Sahawa (or awakening), similar to the Iraqi Sahwa. The US forces, with good experience in dealing with local Arab tribes, are negotiating to convince these to communicate with ISIS to handover to them the area of al-bu Kamal before it is reached by the Syrian Army or its associated forces.
The US is trying to close the border corridor between Syria and Iraq and to control a second crossing (Tanaf is the first) to cut the road on the Iranian-Hezbollah forces coming from the T2, and precede them to the last ISIS stronghold.
In fact, Iran’s plan was to rush towards Al-bu Kamal first rather than being busy with the area around Deir al-Zour, and they asked for Russian air support in the semi-desert and along the borders with Iraq. But Russia has seen the rush from Deir al-Zour to the oil and gas wells as an absolute priority and an effective plan to control energy sources first and then proceed towards Al-bu Kamal/Al-Qaim.
But the United States preceded Russia to the oil and gas Omar oilfield (9000 barrels per day) and to Coniko gas (150 million cubic feet), which ISIS then delivered to the Kurds without any resistance. The US military have great experience in negotiating with the Arab tribes in Iraq. The same tribes are also expanding in north of Syria adjoining the Iraqi Anbar, and with jihadists with whom the US have already concluded previous deals in Iraq and Syria.
The US aims from these audacious steps to impose its agenda on the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through negotiations that are expected to become more aggressive by the beginning of the next year when the “war on terror” ends. With the loss of ISIS’s last stronghold in Al-Bu Kamal, Al-Qaim and Deir-e-Zour, only the embers of al-Qaeda (under Hay’atTahrir al- Sham) glow under the Turkish ashes. Ankara’s troops entered the northern Syrian city of Idlib – following an understanding with al-Qaeda – without any clash. This indicates that Turkey has not ended its role within Syria or the role of al-Qaeda: Ankara is expecting to play the al-Qaeda card when its forces will be asked to withdraw from Syria.
As for ISIS, the “state” project has fizzled out, so the organisation does not mind striking deals with the US (under the cover of Sunni Arab tribes in the Syrian region) as long as it can maintain what remains of its forces and move elsewhere, mainly to where the Syrian army and its allies operate. But will Damascus give in to this blackmail?
Of course the answer is: no! Damascus won’t accept the blackmail. For more than six years, Assad has been able to fight the international community and regional countries that have spent billions of dollars hoping to oust him, change the regime- and hand over power to extremists!
Today, Damascus controls the bulk of Syrian gas and oil in the Badiya (Syrian steppes) and from Tadmur to Deir Al-Zour, which gives the country enough production to satisfy the local market, but of course, without being able to export oil as was the case before the war. Thus, the Syrian army controls today a production equivalent to 3 billion dollars a year, which allows it not to import as it did in the past years of the war. Moreover, Syria is preparing to increase its oil production through contracts signed with Russia, and ready to explore oil fields off the Syrian coast, in the Mediterranean. That is supposed to allow Damascus to compensate for the current loss and negotiate with the Syrian Kurds in a “relaxed” manner without having to offer any territory.
The issue of the American presence remains unsolved, since, once the war on ISIS ended,, the US became an occupying force. Damascus’s position has therefore become stronger, especially as it did not mind reconsidering local administration of the Kurds within the control of the Syrian central government, as long as the danger of separation – as happened in Iraqi Kurdistan – is not on the table.
There is another danger that forces the Kurds to come closer to Damascus than Turkey, who’s President is determined to annex Syrian territories along its borders, especially those controlled by the Kurds. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his intentions to move towards Kurdish Afrin, prompting the Kurds to take refuge in Russia and Damascus- and not in the arms of the US.
This and more is expected to emerge in the coming months when the most difficult phase for Damascus begins: political negotiations and the reconstruction of a country in need of over $500bn.