One wouldn’t know it by reading establishment media headlines, but the Russian air force and the U.S. air force are about to come head to head in Syria in a battle that has been brewing for some months now.
Only the Independent, a U.K.-based media outlet, aptly phrased the looming encounter for what it was in an article entitled:
“US troops and Russia-backed Syrian forces set to come into contact as they close separately on Isis.”
Just recently, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies fought their way to an air base on the outskirts of Deir ez-Zor, an oil-rich region that has been besieged by ISIS for years.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed force made up mostly of Kurdish and Arab fighters, has also just launched separate attacks against ISIS in the north of Deir ez-Zor in an operation to capture areas east of the Euphrates river.
“The first step is to free the eastern bank of the Euphrates and the areas Islamic State still holds,” Ahmed Abu Kholeh, head of the 4,000 fighter-strong Deir ez-Zor military council, which fights under the banner of the SDF, told Reuters after the announcement. “We’re not specifying a timeframe but we hope it will be a quick operation.”
Asked if there were plans to advance on the city itself, Kholeh did not specify the council’s plans. He also said they did not expect clashes with SAA forces but that they would respond if fired upon.“If the regime wants a confrontation or directs one bullet at us we will respond.”
The SAA forces advancing on Deir ez-Zor include Iranian-backed militias, as well as Hezbollah, Reuters reported. The Guardian also recently reported that Russia was providing these troops with air support, meaning any plans for U.S.-backed forces to confront these militias could potentially amount to a confrontation with Russia.
The U.S. has been providing strong air support to the SDF in other parts of the country, too, and has not shied away from striking Syrian government forces throughout 2017. The U.S. has also stepped up its material support for the SDF and just recently provided these fighters with brand new armored vehicles.
The U.S. would rather see its own proxy forces retrieve the oil-rich region of Deir ez-Zor. As pro-Assad forces backed by Russia beat the U.S. to the punch, it is unclear how far down this road the U.S. will want to go. As Navy Times explained:
“Washington has been determined to block the formation of an “Iranian corridor” — of Shiite-controlled land stretching from Tehran to Damascus — and for months has been eyeing the area southeast of Raqqa near the Iraqi border.”
Navy Times also explained further that the battle for Deir ez-Zor has been in the works for months but was ultimately foiled by the SAA and Iranian-backed militia earlier this year:
“U.S.-backed Syrian rebels had been gathering in Tanf in southeastern Syria to march toward Deir el-Zour, but their plans were disrupted in June when Syrian troops reached the border with Iraq, obstructing their path. The only way left for the SDF to enter the eastern province appears to be from the northeastern province of Hassakeh, where Syrian activists say the U.S.-backed fighters have been gathering and stepping up preparations for an attack.”
One possibility, which seems likely, is that the U.S.-backed forces are making an advance now to take as much of the territory as possible without actually confronting the SAA and its allies directly.
Navy Times suggested this is a potential scenario given the U.S. and Russia have an interest in avoiding a clash and “may devise a strategy that will allow both sides to share control of the vast province.”
The U.S. has a history of avoiding direct confrontations with strong militaries that are backed by world powers. With this likely strategy, America’s proxy forces can continue to act as a buffer against Assad’s looming victory in the Syrian war and potentially give some of the spoils of the region to the SDF so they can operate with financial independence from the U.S.
That being said, it is not clear that the SAA and Iranian-backed militias, independent of Russia, will just sit on their hands and allow these forces to illegally take their territory. After all, why should they?
How the U.S. can even be involved in this land-retrieving process is mind-boggling beyond belief, as it has no legal basis to conduct operations in Syria in the first place.