As the common enemy in Syria is almost defeated, US and Russian-backed proxies have clashed in some areas. Their struggle to consolidate power has surfaced, but some analysts think the various actors have already claimed their spheres of influence.
As the war in Syria coming to an end, each of the players on the ground are trying to claim their spheres of influence. The US-backed YPG, which is linked to the PKK—a group designated as a terrorist organisation by the US, the EU, and Turkey—has been taking steps to consolidate territory under its control in northern Syria, while Russia and the Iranian-backed regime continue to push for control of the whole of the country.
Nearly seven years into the Syrian war, Russian-backed forces have clashed with the US coalition, over the killing of several Russian nationals in what was the first such confrontation between two of the most powerful actors in Syria.
Russia entered the war on the side of the regime in 2015, as the US armed the YPG, which focused its efforts primarily on gaining and consolidating its territory in the areas where it defeated Daesh in northern Syria. Until recently, the YPG and the Syrian regime have co-operated against what they view as their common foes, including Daesh. However, currently some of the differences between the two actors have become more apparent.
Where the YPG wants to carve out an autonomous region for itself in northern Syria, the regime has made it clear that it intends to control the whole country. The strategic region of Deir Ezzor has become an important area for the regime to try to capture.
How did Russia react to the death of its nationals by the US-backed coalition?
Although the confrontation in Deir Ezzor happened on February 8, Moscow did not issue a statement until several days later—one that focused more on US media coverage of the event.
On February 8, pro-regime groups came under air and artillery fire from the United States and the YPG, in a move that the US called “self defence”, as pro-regime groups launched a “co-ordinated attack” with tanks, artillery and rocket systems across the Euphrates River deconfliction line.
After the attack, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said that the US would be focusing on Daesh, and that it was not “looking for a conflict” with the Syrian regime. Days later, the US destroyed a Russian-made tank in a drone attack, with Reuters reporting that at least two pro-regime militants were killed.
Again, the US downplayed the incident of the tank approaching the Euphrates deconfliction line, with US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis saying that “this could just be a local couple of guys doing something. I don’t want to dignify it as a big attack.”
Then, on February 13, The New York Times revealed that at least four Russian nationals had been killed in clashes between the US-backed coalition, and Russian and Iranian-backed pro-regime paramilitary groups in the eastern region of Deir Ezzor. At first, the Kremlin said it had no information about Russian mercenaries being killed, saying it only knew about official deployments of Russians as part of the armed forces.
On February 15, Moscow addressed the allegations by talking about “rumours” regarding the number of dead.
“According to preliminary data, five people, presumably Russian citizens, died in an armed clash, the reasons for which are being clarified… To reiterate, the issue is not about Russian servicemen,” Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, underlining that it was an “information attack” from the US.
She continued by emphasising the potential for such reports to “complicate” work, including those on the diplomatic level.
“...[W]e are talking about a conflict zone with ongoing hostilities. In a situation like that, diplomacy operates on the verge of what’s possible, and planted articles like that do nothing but further complicate our work.”
Although private contractors with links to the Kremlin are known to operate in Syria, Russia only acknowledges its official forces on the ground. Reuters reported that about 300 men working for Russian contractors were killed during the February attack.
Has this happened before?
These types of episodes have taken place several times before, although both sides have downplayed any strong tensions or rhetoric used by the other.
In June, the US shot down a Syrian jet, an incident Russia called an “act of aggression”, and said it would view planes west of the Euphrates as “targets”, though US officials had downplayed the situation.
In September, a Russian air strike injured US-backed YPG militants, but the US maintained that the deconfliction agreement was in place: “We are confident that the deconfliction process can work, can succeed and move ahead. That is what we are committed to. That is what our Russian counterparts tell us they are committed to,” Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield said.
The US and Russia have also been at odds at the UN, with 10 Security Council resolutions regarding Syria vetoed by the regime’s ally. On Saturday, the UNSC adopted a unanimous ceasefire resolution, though regime forces have continued to conduct new strikes.
If they have different goals in Syria, why hasn’t there been an escalation?
“The two parties are broadly in agreement on zones of influence in Syria, with the Russian zone of influence west of the Euphrates, and the American zone of influence east of the Euphrates,” said Director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara Office Ozgur Unluhisarcikli. “And there is not much room for a collision between the two because they have geographically separated their areas of activity.”
Unluhisarcikli also explained that the US and Russia would likely avoid direct confrontations at all costs, with confrontations between their proxies to be more likely.
On Tuesday, Russia’s Vitaly Naumkin, Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who is also one of the Kremlin’s key consultants on the region, is visiting Washington for an off-the-record meeting at Georgetown University.
So why do the clashes happen at all?
“The Syrian regime, in the long run, would like to control all of their territories, [so] the Syrian regime is looking for ways to control [Deir Ezzor],” explained Unluhisarcikli.
The strategic region of Deir Ezzor has been split between the regime and the YPG since Daesh was mostly driven out of the region, and the US and Russia have been holding “deconfliction” meetings to prevent confrontations. However, even with the “broad agreement” regarding areas of influence, the oil-rich region has seen some “episodes” of conflict between the sides.
However, Unluhisarcikli also pointed out that this recent event shows that the regime’s efforts in Deir Ezzor can easily be repelled by the YPG.
“It will not be easy for the regime to take over the YPG east of the Euphrates in the short run. It could be possible through negotiations and a political settlement on the overall Syrian situation,” but not only for a settlement in a particular region, and not in the short run, he continued.
“The US has declared that it does not have the intention to leave Syria before a political settlement. So long as the US continues to support the YPG east of Euphrates, Syrian regime forces cannot take over ... the attempts at Deir Ezzor have shown the regime that such attempts will not produce success easily.”
Furthermore, some analysts point to the alleged relationship between the Trump administration and Russia for clues regarding the two countries’ conduct in Syria. The Trump administration is currently under multiple investigations for possible collusion with the Russian government in the 2016 US elections, which saw Trump’s victory. The investigations started early in Trump’s tenure and coincided with the US’ first strikes on a regime-held air base, which led some experts to believe that this type of action was a way of showing a tough stance against Russia.
Other experts, like Unluhisarcikli, don’t see a connection. “The Russia-related investigations are against the Trump administration, and [not in its interest], whereas the clashes in Syria are the result of an executive decision. So one is a judicial act, the other is the action of the executive; so they cannot be related.”
What will Syria look like during this period?
“Until there is a political settlement, Syria will look like a bigger version of what Berlin looked like after the Second World War, with different outside powers controlling different parts of the country,” explained Unluhisarchikli. “So there would be a Russian-controlled part of Syria, an American-controlled part of Syria, a small but growing Turkish-controlled part of Syria.”
With the UN-backed Geneva processes trying to bring a political solution to the war rendered ineffective, and the lack of wide opposition participation in the Russia-backed processes in Astana and Sochi, Unluhisarcikli thinks that a political solution will not be coming soon.
“This will remain a protracted conflict for possibly a few years and maybe even a decade, so I would suggest that the current map, with maybe some exceptions, is more or less frozen.”
“But the final settlement will definitely be political.”