Russia-U.S. Tension in Eastern Euphrates: Causes and Trajectories

EPC | 05 Feb 2020

Tensions are escalating between U.S. and Russian forces in areas east of the Euphrates, particularly in the Hasaka governorate in eastern Syria. These tensions are translated into scuffles between the two countries’ forces, as the United States tries to set the boundaries of its spheres of influence, while Russia seeks to expand its influence in that region. This threatens a collision, especially in light of the divergence in the two countries’ view of the final solution in Syria.

This paper highlights the shift in the relationship between Russian and U.S. forces around the Euphrates region and attempts to project its trajectories.

Causes of the Conflict

The withdrawal of the U.S. forces from areas in eastern Syria in October 2019 stirred Russia's ambitions to control the oil- and natural resources-rich region, east of the Euphrates. This region is home to the trade route with Iraq and is close to oil fields in northern Iraq, where Russia aspires to build pipelines to transport oil from northern Iraq to the Syrian ports instead of exporting it via Turkey or Iran.

Russian forces have redeployed in a number of areas after the U.S. withdrawal from the border strip. After the Turkish offensive code-named "Operation Peace Spring" on areas east of the Euphrates, Russia took advantage of the deal it concluded with Turkey and it was agreed that Syrian and Russian forces would deploy in areas east of the Euphrates for the first time since 2012. The Russian forces deployment in areas east of the Euphrates aims to achieve three goals: Ensure military control of those areas in Syria; reach the trade route with Iraq “M4”; and create a balance against the US military presence in the Gulf region and Iraq.

U.S. Attempts to Undo the Mistake

The Russian moves made U.S. military leaders understand the magnitude of the mistake they made as a result of curtailing U.S. military presence in Syria. Even if it is not possible to return to the areas from which they withdrew and became under Russian forces' control, the U.S. forces have been trying to remedy the situation by stopping the Russian expansion and confining it to specific areas. 1

On January 21, a U.S. military patrol intercepted a Russian military patrol on the international highway in Hasaka, near the town of Al-Malikiyah, in northeastern Syria. The U.S. patrol forced the Russian force to turn back toward Qamishli. This incident is not the first of its kind. The U.S. forces have been doing something like "ambushes" against Russian patrols in Qamishli and surrounding areas. Driven by the belief that Russia will not stop at the borders of Syria and is setting its sight on Iraq's Kurdistan oil wealth, the Americans insist on preventing the introduction of the Russians into the city of Hasaka or gaining access to the border crossings with Iraq. 2 In addition, the Americans know, through their experience in Syria, that Russian-controlled areas are open to Iranian influence, either because of Iran's ability to penetrate local communities in those areas, or because of the Russians’ use of local forces to help in maintaining the security of those areas.

The U.S. response to the Russian moves is evident in pursuing a strategy of encirclement and containment applied against Iranian expansion in those areas, and maintaining control of key areas, especially the border triangle between Syria and Iraq in the Qamishli region. Other U.S. measures also include ensuring that the "Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)" remains in control of the region, as the local force that represents the American will. 3

Movements on the Ground and the Two Parties' Presence

Russia was quick to impose facts on the ground with the aim of permanently changing the previous reality, establishing a series of bases in areas east of the Euphrates, as follows:

  1. Setting up a new combat helicopter base at a civilian airport in the city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria. The new base is guarded by Pantsir surface-to-air missile systems, military helicopters and two Mi-35 gunships. 4
  2. Setting up a base at Tabqa Military Airport after it has been completely evacuated from the SDF. Russia has brought to the airport military hardware, including helicopters to transport Russian advisors to and from military bases between Aleppo and Raqqa governorates.
  3. Setting up a base in Ain Issa, north of the city of Raqqa, and on the lines of contact between the pro-Turkish factions, the SDF and the Syrian regime's army, in the 93 armored brigade of the 17th division in the city of Raqqa. Russian forces have brought to this base more than fifty armored vehicles.
  4. Setting up a base in the 17th Infantry Division in the northeastern region, adjacent to the city of Raqqa.
  5. Setting up a base in the village of Al-Sabt, north of Sarin district, which was controlled by Russian forces after the withdrawal of the U.S. forces.

Thus, the Russian forces established military bases interconnected with each other south of the city of Ain Al-Arab, about 40 km on the international Aleppo-Hasaka highway. 5

Locations of U.S. Forces

The U.S. withdrew from 16 military bases and positions, including from Manbij, Ain al-Arab, Raqqa, and Hasaka, but maintained its presence in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor, and keptbases in the oil fields of Hasaka, on the pretext of protecting the oil fields from ISIS and depriving the group of any financial resources. The US forces evacuated 4 observation posts on the borders with Turkey, but they returned to 6 military bases and posts after "Operation Peace Spring" stopped. The U.S. army also established new bases in Deir Ezzor, and sent reinforcements to those areas.

Additionally, the U.S. forces have redeployed to new areas in the easternmost of Syria, near the Iraqi border, and established Baghouz, on the left bank of the Euphrates, a small base for it. By establishing this base, the U.S. aims to monitor and control the Iraqi-Syrian borders on the left bank of the Euphrates, or as it is known locally the Al-Jazira region. This base is also considered the closest U.S. point to the Al-Qaim border crossing between Syria and Iraq, which is controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard6. It is noted that the U.S. redeployment is centered on the Euphrates River, where Iranian militias control the opposite bank. Therefore, the U.S. army established a base in Al-Susah desert region, west of Baghouz, to which it brought tanks and humvees, and built an Apache attack helicopter helipad. To the west, specifically in the town of Hajin, the U.S. army has set up a base in a railway structure.

These U.S. moves are accompanied by an accelerated process of building bases for the SDF in the oil-rich region east of Deir Ezzor and Hasaka. The U.S. had already announced that it would remain in that region and, therefore, had built several bases in the Rawdha region between Deir Ezzor and Hasaka, and the Sijan, Maleh and Azraq oilfields. 7

The U.S. has maintained its most important bases in Syria and east of the Euphrates, where the Rumailan base is the largest, in addition to the Tel Baidar base, the Al-Hawl base, and the Al-Shaddadi base south of Hasaka. In addition to the bases east of the Euphrates, there is the Al-Tanf base on the Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian border, which cuts the international highway between Iraq and Syria. The U.S. maintains that base with the aim of reducing the activity of Iranian militias in Syria and encircling Iran.

The map of U.S. bases in Syria indicates that the territory east of the new Deir Ezzor-Hasaka road, down to the south of Hasaka and east of Qamishli, will be a purely American sphere of influence.

According to U.S. officials, there are now about 750 American soldiers in eastern Syria, deployed across a stretch of lands spanning more than 150 kilometers, from Deir Ezzor to the border area east of Hasaka. 8

Areas Targeted by Russia East of the Euphrates

In light of their movement east of the Euphrates, the Russians are setting their sights on controlling certain strategic regions. Achieving that control would change the strategic balance in their favor in the current stage, even as U.S. forces remain in control of oil fields.

In this regard, it is noted that the Russians imposed their control on the Semalka border crossing with the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which serves as a point for the introduction of U.S. forces, weapons and equipment to the areas under the control of the "SDF". They also took control of the vital road linking Aleppo and Qamishli, which is the lifeblood of the region and the Rumailan oil field, near which the U.S. forces built a huge military base.

The Russian control of these points is a blow to the U.S. presence in Syria, because the U.S. forces will have no access to supply routes, and will be at the mercy of Russian forces. Additionally, the U.S. bases will also become isolated points, and military leaders will soon be asking to bring the U.S. forces back home. This is what U.S. field commanders realized and made them express strong resistance to the Russian attempts to control these areas.

Russian Tactics and the U.S. Response

In addition to field action, Russia is pursuing a number of tactics to counter the U.S. presence east of the Euphrates, namely:

  • Pressuring the Kurds to reach an agreement with the Assad regime that would allow him to regain full control of the region and get the United States out of the game.
  • Threatening to form armed groups of Arab tribes to resist the U.S. and Kurdish presence.
  • Threatening of a confrontation with the Americans by deploying a sophisticated missile air defense system at the Qamishli airport.

However, it appears that the Russian tactics are not producing the desired effect on the U.S. policy for several reasons, the most important of which are:

  • The fact that the decision on the U.S. military presence in Syria is in the hands of hard-liners in the Pentagon and the CIA, who refuse to withdraw and give Russia a free victory.
  • The political implications of the killing of Iran's Quds Force Commander, Qassem Soleimani, and the Iraqi government's request to the U.S. to withdraw its forces from the country, which the U.S. administration turned down, because it believed that it would undermine its interests and prestige throughout the region.
  • The fact that Trump himself, whom Russia has long gambled on his shifts and his desire to leave Syria, seems to stick to staying in Syria, and this matter has become of special importance to him in an elections year.

The Tools of Both Parties to the Conflict

The eastern Euphrates region has become a key target for both the Russians and the Americans who have used tools available to them to enhance their influence in the region, through:

  • Establishing military and security centers. The area is now home to dozens of bases. The U.S. forces have 13 bases and military posts, while the Russians have five bases, guarded by troops and weapons.
  • Building interlocking alliances with the Kurds and Turkey. Both Russia and U.S. try to ally with the Kurds and Turkey to serve a similar strategy of driving each other out of regions east of the Euphrates.
  • Forming armed groups as the race turns to co-opting and militarizing the forces already operating in the region. Russia has formed a battalion of Assyrians and Armenians who live in Tell Tamr, and is trying to win over Arab tribes. The United States also seeks to give the Arabs in the "SDF" forces a special status, so that they do not feel marginalized under the leadership of the Kurds, and, as a result, shift their alliance towards Russia.
  • The United States has been encouraging the Kurds to negotiate with Turkey, with the aim of changing the reality against the Russians. Kurdish sources have spoken about the meetings held by the "Kurdish National Council (KNC)" in Syria, with the U.S. special envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, in Istanbul in the second week of January 2020, which sought to achieve reconciliation between the SDF and the KNC. According to Kurdish sources, Jeffrey called on the KNC not to withdraw from the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces as a result of the differences between the two parties after the Turkish offensive. Jeffrey also urged the SDF to improve their relations with the Kurdistan Region. The source asserted that Turkey was still objecting to negotiations with the "SDF", and was demanding guarantees to disengage the latter from the "Kurdistan Workers Party", which Turkey designates as a terrorist party, and that the SDF must transform into a local political party with a Syrian agenda. The sources said the “SDF” is working to form a delegation, comprising Syrian figures with no ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party, to negotiate with Turkey as a goodwill gesture9.

U.S.-Russian Conflict in Syria: Future Scenarios

First Scenario: A direct confrontation between the Russian and U.S. forces in the east of the Euphrates. The increased complexity on the ground in the areas east of the Euphrates, and the large overlaps in the spheres of influence, point to the possibility that frequent scuffles will turn into real confrontations. This is due contradictory strategies, differing motives, and struggle for influence, especially with Russia's insistence on achieving absolute domination over the entire Syrian issue in the face of U.S. intransigence and refusal to recognize Russia's right to monopolize the Syrian issue.

At a time when Russia is acting on the basis of its conviction that the U.S. presence in oil-rich Syrian regions, and its approval of the "Caesar Law for the Protection of Syrian Civilians" at the end of last year, will undermine its role in Syria, and that there is no solution but the departure of U.S. forces, the United States seeks to correct the mistake the Trump administration has made and restore its allies' confidence, as demonstrated by Jeffrey's tour of the region. This scenario appears likely unless one of the two parties backs off from its moves or if they re-fix coordination channels between them and agree on the boundaries of each party's sphere of influence.

Second Scenario: A proxy war in areas east of the Euphrates. The two sides began to militarize and recruit local forces to establish their influence and destabilize the other side. This scenario appears less costly than a direct confrontation, but it serves the purpose of exhausting the adversary's energy and capabilities. The situation may even develop into a direct clash of proxies, the SDF and the Assad regime, as the most armed and trained forces in those areas.

This scenario is likely in the event of failure to reach a quick end to the crisis of relations between the two sides. This scenario is also based on the perception of each party that the other is determined to hold its ground, and that direct clash is a dangerous gamble.

Third Scenario: The continuation of the status quo, that is, the continuation of controllable skirmishes between the two parties. This scenario is backed by previous cooperation between the armies of the two countries to avoid escalation since the Balkan War. Leonid Ivashov, President of the Academy for Geopolitical Problems, explains this by asserting that the United States does not want to turn the conflict there into a confrontation with Russia10. Therefore, it can be said that some skirmishes between the two countries ’military will continue to occur, but there are intersections in many interests, and that the situation will not reach a touch-and-go state. In addition, Russia, preoccupied with Idlib, will not open a new front in areas east of the  Euphrates, before resolving matters in Aleppo and Idlib.

References

1. "A source close to" SDF "reveals a new US plan in norther Syria ... air traffic control only," Al-Quds Al-Arabi, January 28, 2020.

2. “Can we witness a direct Russian-American conflict in Syria?” Al-Waght, February 2, 2020.

3. Yahya Ayyash, "These are the reasons for America's tension with Russia over" Al-Qamishli "... How does it end?," Arabi 21, January 23, 2020.

4. “Russia establishes helicopter base at Qamishli Airport,” Asharq Al-Awsat, November 14, 2019.

5. "Air and ground bases ... Russia strengthens its military presence east of the Euphrates," Al-Jazeera Net, 15 November 2019.

6. Manhal Barish, “East of the Euphrates: America builds bases in the face of Iran and isolates Syrian oil,” Al-Quds Al-Arabi, November 9, 2019.

7. "American forces bring reinforcements to the east of the Euphrates in a surprising move," Alsouria Net, January 27, 2020.

8. "A source close to" SDF "reveals a new US plan in norther Syria ... air traffic control only," Al-Quds Al-Arabi, January 28, 2020.

9. "General McKinsey: Washington is committed to fighting in Syria and strengthening its operations against ISIS," Asharq Al-Awsat, January 27, 2020.

10. “Gunfire without casualties: The United States and Russia are fighting in Syria,” Russia Today, 27 January 2020.

 

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