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The complex battle for control in eastern Syria

Syrian soldiers on torn up roads Tom Wescott/IRIN

Ever since a deal was struck in the Kazakh capital of Astana early this month to de-escalate the conflict in western Syria, all eyes have been turning east. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies have just launched an operation to “take control of the eastern desert in Syria”. It is not just about driving out the Sunni extremist group known as the Islamic State, but also about preventing other rivals from filling the void.

The Astana agreement is less a driver of this new logic of war, in which all sides seek to position themselves for maximal gain in a fragmented Syria, than a reflection of new realities. Though al-Assad’s opponents remain reluctant to say so in public, they increasingly operate under the assumption that Russian and Iranian support has succeeded in saving his regime in Damascus and the pertinent questions now are: Which areas will he be able to retake – when, how, and from whom?

The presence of American, Jordanian, Turkish, and other foreign advisers among some insurgent groups has raised the spectre of Syria’s partition. Not in the sense of a formal division, but as a “frozen conflict” in which outlying regions may remain independent of an otherwise dominant Damascus due to de-confliction deals negotiated between foreign governments. Well-founded or not, such fears appear to play a prominent part in the thinking of al-Assad and his Iranian allies, who worry that US-backed Kurdish fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces will seize northern Syria while other US-backed rebels take control of the rest of the Iraqi border.

Miranda Grant/IRIN

To shore up its frail position in the desert and along the eastern borders, the Syrian government is using the relative calm in western Syria to push east along three main axes: in northern Syria east of Aleppo, in central Syria from Palmyra toward Deir Ezzor, and in the southeast along the border with Jordan and Iraq. Let’s take a look at each in turn:

The northern front: From Maskanah to Raqqa

On 13 May, Syrian government forces retook Al-Jarrah airbase east of Aleppo. They are now moving southeast along Lake Assad towards IS-held Maskanah. After Maskanah comes Tabqa: a city with an important hydroelectric dam that was recently seized by the SDF as part of its operations to envelop Raqqa from the north. The government will likely complement these moves with a push towards Tabqa from Ithriya, a small town on the Aleppo-Hama road.

In the short-term, this is merely al-Assad picking low-hanging fruit. The area around Maskanah has been more or less cut off from Raqqa since the fall of Tabqa, and the jihadis are not likely to waste great resources trying to hold it. However, the regime’s longer-term goals may be more sophisticated. It is unlikely that al-Assad will want to provoke a shooting match with the Kurds and their US backers, or that he could count on Russian support for doing so, but his forces must still move into the Raqqa region if he hopes to regain influence in Tabqa and Raqqa.

The Syrian leader may hope that the weak long-term US commitment to the Syrian Kurds will make them agree to a power-sharing deal that could eventually, when American influence recedes, force them back into al-Assad’s embrace. Turkey’s hostility to the SDF leaves the Syrian Kurdish forces exposed and in need of allies, which may help al-Assad’s bargaining power.

It is a gamble, but not a bad one. Regime sources have claimed that they seek the return of the Tabqa Dam not through fighting but through negotiations, using Kurdish intermediaries. According to a Western diplomat speaking to the Wall Street Journal, the United States may also want Raqqa handed over to “a local civilian council friendly to the Syrian regime”, which could then “transfer control of the city back to the regime”. Such a manoeuvre seems far-fetched today, but by the time Raqqa falls, it may be much less so.

A lot will undoubtedly depend on future US and Turkish choices, but the first step for al-Assad is move into place and ensure he isn’t cut out of the action.

The central front: Reopening the road to Deir Ezzor

The second and most important of al-Assad’s eastern offensives seems set to launch from Palmyra, where the Syrian government has retaken valuable gas fields and now prepares to move towards the IS-controlled crossroads at Sukhna. North of Sukhna lies Raqqa, and to its east Deir Ezzor. Both the Syrian and Russian governments speak of Deir Ezzor as a main goal in their current operations, which appear to be taking place in coordination with Iranian-backed militia offensives across the border near Sinjar.

Deir Ezzor has been under siege for years, with a small and overstretched Syrian army garrison slowly losing ground against the jihadis. According to the UN, some 93,500 civilians currently live in two pockets of government-controlled territory, and they have suffered severely. At one point, a bag of sugar was said to cost the equivalent of $450, and in 2016 the UN received reports of deaths from starvation, prompting the World Food Programme to start parachuting food into the city. The aid drops were interrupted in January 2017 by a jihadi offensive that cut the enclave in two, but later resumed using new drop sites. When the air bridge marked the end of its first year in April 2017, there had been a total of 231 air drops, adding up to 4,407 metric tonnes of food and other supplies.

A WFP airdrop

By taking Sukhna, the Syrian government would be able to reconnect Deir Ezzor to western Syria and the capital, with all that that entails in terms of military reinforcements, administrative contacts, market access, and humanitarian relief for regime-held eastern Syria. It would also greatly facilitate al-Assad’s further expansion towards the border by helping him rebuild the provincial capital’s administrative apparatus and extend the web of security installations and public services that have served to keep otherwise non-committal civilians in al-Assad’s orbit all over Syria. If calm prevails in western Syria, a recaptured Deir Ezzor could serve as al-Assad’s springboard to reclaiming the IS-controlled oil wells of eastern Syria, challenging the SDF’s grip on the northeast, and reconnecting with Iraq through the al-Bukamal border crossing.

The southern front: Southern Syria and the al-Tanf airstrike

The border crossings at al-Bukamal, southeast of Deir Ezzor, and at al-Tanf, east of Damascus, are a major concern of al-Assad’s government. Al-Bukamal remains in IS hands, but the jihadis lost al-Tanf to US- and Jordanian-backed fighters in March 2016. Since then, al-Tanf has been used by the US-led anti-IS coalition to train and equip Syrian rebels to take on the jihadis. Recently, the al-Tanf rebels began to grab villages and outposts in the southeastern deserts, while also launching raids in the direction of al-Bukamal, amid reports of US air drops. Should the al-Tanf rebels succeed in taking al-Bukamal while the SDF holds crossings further north, US-backed groups would be in control of the entire Syrian-Iraqi border.

To al-Assad and his allies, this is a serious concern. The government’s loss of its last Jordanian and Iraqi border crossings in 2015 has severely damaged trade with neighbouring countries and deprived Syrian companies of overland access to markets in the Gulf, Iran, and Egypt. It has also hurt Lebanese, Iraqi, and Jordanian traders who depend on transit through Syria. Re-establishing a solid land route between Damascus and Baghdad – and by extension between Beirut and Tehran – would also be of major military and logistical importance. Conversely, some US policymakers seem to want to prevent this, as a way of reducing Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon.*

Iran-friendly Iraqi militias have repeatedly hinted that they will enter Syria to help al-Assad stabilise the borderlands once they have mopped up IS pockets around Mosul, Tal Afar, and Sinjar. But they are not there yet, and, on the Syrian side, the al-Tanf rebels hope to get to al-Bukamal first. “Our goals are clear,” a commander of the US-backed fighters recently told the news site Syria Direct. “We want to outmanoeuvre [pro-regime] militias maliciously advancing towards Deir Ezzor.” If they manage to install themselves there with US support, the area may be difficult to recover for al-Assad, since his Russian allies are unlikely to want to strike a rebel garrison full of American military advisers.

Perhaps partly to weigh down the US-backed efforts, pro-Assad forces are now putting pressure on the al-Tanf region from the west and north. In mid-May, regime units began to move into the desert areas east of Sweida and around the Damascus-Palmyra road, while Iranian-backed militias lunged toward the main base at al-Tanf. They were turned back by a rare US airstrike on 18 May.

However, the United States has so far been unwilling to join an all-out contest for control of the border, apparently wishing to retain a narrow focus on IS and seek some form of understanding with Russia. “We are not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops,” said US Secretary of Defence James Mattis, who insisted the 18 May airstrike was purely defensive in nature.

Interestingly, though the Syrian and Iranian governments roared and raged and thumped their chests, the Russian response to the airstrike was relatively muted. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov even took care to confirm the US-led coalition’s description of the unit struck as a militia rather than a part of the Russian-backed army. “They were not the government troops,” Ryabkov said to reporters, though he insisted, as always, that any action inside Syria without al-Assad’s permission is a violation of international law.

Competition or collaboration?

Russia may not fully share the agenda of al-Assad and his Iranian allies, but, at the end of the day, Moscow has no reason to bet on any other horse. The balance of forces in eastern Syria clearly tilts in al-Assad’s favour in the longer term, while the United States is unwilling to shoulder the costs of any strategy that could fundamentally change the prognosis.

So far, US plans to launch the al-Tanf rebels towards the Euphrates region are mainly framed in the context of anti-IS operations, with no real clarity on the aftermath, said Nicholas A. Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who is regularly in touch with US policymakers on Syria. “However,” Heras added, in an online conversation with IRIN, “the US military engages in a free-flowing dialogue with DC, back and forth, and the military is not unaware of the broader significance of eastern Syria territory to frustrating Iran.”

Even so, it is hard to imagine that Washington would want to commit to holding a rebel enclave on the Syrian-Iraqi border indefinitely, against IS, Syrian regime, Iranian, Iraqi, and possibly also Russian resistance. It would be precisely the kind of open-ended policing of a Middle Eastern shatterbelt that the current US administration has sworn to avoid and which most Americans seem to abhor. It would also represent a radical break from the current US strategy, which, with limited success, has tried to disentangle the war against IS from the rest of Syria’s armed mayhem. At a recent press conference, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford noted that his forces are “precluded by law from coordinating with the Russians”, but added that they are constantly in touch over force de-confliction issues, which involves mapping out offensives to avoid accidents or clashes. Dunford said the United States had presented “a proposal” on Deir Ezzor “that we're working on with the Russians right now”.

Most likely, US policy in eastern Syria will continue to be guided by these types of pragmatic, IS-focused arrangements, and the United States will continue to try to work around al-Assad instead of working against him. This attitude has given the Syrian leader and his allies a chance to seize the initiative after the Astana deal, but how far al-Assad’s army can carry the opportunity remains to be seen – not least because the war in western Syria could heat up again at any moment.

* A more circuitous land route from Iraq to Syria was recently opened through Kurdish areas, but it leaves al-Assad and his regional allies dependent on the SDF. This is problematic for them because of the SDFs ties to the United States, and because al-Assad may at some point want to play the Kurdish card to extract concessions from Turkey.


(TOP PHOTO: Palmyra roads that were mined by the so-called Islamic State (IS/ISIS) on their retreat from Palmyra. The Syrian Army took the city from ISIS in late March 2016. Tom Westcott/IRIN)

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