With the U.S. consumed with domestic crises and a standoff with North Korea, Russia has quietly moved to press its advantage on the battlefield in Syria. A series of increasingly brazen Russian and Syrian airstrikes on U.S.-backed forces in Syria in recent days is the first step in a larger plan to co-opt American proxy forces fighting Islamic State and improve the Kremlin’s leverage to shape the postwar landscape, analysts say.
Russian-backed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad on Monday launched a heavy artillery attack in eastern Syria near positions of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the alliance of Kurdish and Arab paramilitary fighters battling Islamic State militants, coalition officials confirmed Thursday.
U.S. military officials said they immediately contacted the Russians “to prevent accidental targeting and to ease tensions” between the two sides in an increasingly complicated and crowded battlefield in eastern Syria, Col. Ryan Dillon, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq and Syria, told reporters at the Pentagon.
Coalition officials maintain that Monday’s attack was a case of “accidental targeting,” but it was the third such strike against anti-Islamic State forces this month and was less than a week after Russian warplanes struck SDF units in the Islamic State-held territory of Deir el-Zour.
Emboldened by the regime’s victory over anti-government forces in the rebel stronghold of Aleppo late last year, Mr. Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies have stepped up their offensive against Islamic State-held positions, increasingly setting their sights on the group’s stronghold in Deir el-Zour.
While the battle parallels the U.S.-backed coalition fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Russia and Syria are rushing to seize control of Deir el-Zour’s massive oil and gas resources, to improve Mr. Assad’s position in the jockeying for power after Islamic State is defeated, said James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“The Russians are primarily motivated by the desire to shore up the Assad regime,” Mr. Phillips said. “What they are really going for is not to go after ISIS, but to secure the gas and oil fields” in eastern Syria before U.S.-allied forces can.
The Russians struck SDF units Monday shortly after they reclaimed control of the Conoco gas field. The field is one of the largest oil and gas sources in Syria and the first to fall under the coalition’s control.
“We strongly condemn the aggressive attacks of the Russian forces and their allies on ground, which only serve terrorism and harm the war on terror,” said an SDF statement released shortly after the airstrike, which killed several fighters. “We will not stand indifferent about such attacks, and we will use our right of self-defense.”
But Russia’s recent moves reflect a much longer game Moscow is playing in the Middle East, Mr. Phillips said. Continued harassment of SDF and U.S.-backed forces is an attempt to drive a wedge between the paramilitaries and their American commanders, he said.
“It is going to be harder and harder to maintain the cohesiveness of the SDF” as the fight against Islamic State drags on, he said, noting that continued harassment of U.S. paramilitaries by Russian and regime forces could accelerate that erosion.
By keeping up the pressure on the SDF, Moscow is sending a clear signal that “the U.S. will not protect you,” Mr. Phillips said, adding that the message could “encourage factions of the SDF to seek other means of support,” particularly from Moscow.
Divide and conquer
Turning support of American proxy fighters in Syria to Russia has always been part of Moscow’s regional strategy for the country, said Christopher Kozak, a research analyst specializing in Syria at the Institute for the Study of War.
“Russia’s role is to co-opt our U.S.-[backed] forces on the ground” once Islamic State is defeated in Syria, Mr. Kozak said. “They see the best option is to have some kind of regime rapprochement [with the SDF] and remove the U.S.”
For now, however, Russian commanders have opted to focus their efforts on quashing opposition forces battling the Assad regime.
President Trump’s decision in April to launch strikes against a Syrian regime air base, which was used to carry out chemical attacks against rebel forces, gave Moscow the opening it needed to put its strategy for the SDF into action, Mr. Kozak said.
Moscow is pairing the military pressure it is exerting on the SDF with backdoor diplomacy, prompting talks between Kurdish elements within the paramilitary’s leadership and top officials inside the Syrian regime. Shortly after the Russian airstrike on the SDF near the Conoco gas fields, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem met with Kurdish SDF leaders in a meeting brokered by Moscow.
Moscow is urging Kurdish factions inside the SDF to abandon their alliance with the U.S. once the fight against Islamic State in Syria subsides. Damascus has a better chance of turning Kurdish fighters to the regime than the SDF’s Arab factions, which are largely made up of former fighters from anti-regime forces, Mr. Kozak said.
Recent comments by Kurdish SDF commanders indicate that Russia’s plan may be gaining traction. Gen. Mazlum Kobane, the Syrian Kurd who is chief commander of the SDF, said in an interview Tuesday that his forces would be willing to negotiate with the regime once Islamic State is defeated.
“We are responsible for the areas that we govern,” Gen. Kobane told al Monitor in an interview in Raqqa. “If we fail to come to an agreement with the central government in Damascus, the status quo in this region will prevail. And there will either be an agreement or war.”
As Moscow and Damascus press ahead with their Syria strategy, Washington has given little attention to Russian influence on the SDF, and how that influence could upend U.S. influence in Syria after Islamic State is flushed out, Mr. Kozak said.
“I have not seen a lot of momentum in that regard and that could leave us vulnerable” once the Islamic State campaign ends in Syria, he said. “There will be an awkward period where the U.S. position will be shaky” and Russia and the Syrian regime are positioning themselves to take full advantage of that opening.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been active on the diplomatic front as well. He was in Ankara on Thursday for talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was once staunchly opposed to Mr. Putin’s backing of Mr. Assad but has recently warmed to Moscow. The two discussed de-escalating tensions along Turkey’s border with Syria and the shape of an eventual political settlement.
“The necessary conditions have been created for putting an end to the fratricidal war in Syria, completely destroying terrorists and allowing Syrians to return to peaceful life,” Mr. Putin told reporters, according to The Associated Press. “We are creating conditions for the refugees’ return and — which is of principal importance — for stepping up the search for a long-term political settlement in Geneva.”
More broadly, Russia has been the prime driver behind peace talks underway in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana, even as a U.S.-backed peace negotiation in Geneva has been rendered irrelevant.
The Kremlin is also pushing a far-reaching postwar plan that would bring some rebel groups into the government and allow Mr. Assad to run for a third term when his current term ends in 2021. That, analysts say, would give Mr. Assad at least an appearance of legitimacy and clear the way for international aid for Syria’s vast rebuilding needs.
On the ground in Syria, the U.S. and Russian militaries have established clear spheres of influence to avoid unintentional clashes on the complex Syrian battlefield. But the recent Russian strikes on SDF positions have raised questions about the viability of the “deconfliction” policy, Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters this month.
“When you look at the fact that this was a change, you can imagine this was at the highest levels,” the Pentagon chief said Sept. 18. American and Russian commanders in Syria held a face-to-face meeting this month in an effort to defuse tensions between the two countries, top coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillion said.
“Russia uses the deconfliction line when it suits its purposes,” Mr. Kozak said, indicating that Moscow sees the line as both “a pressure valve and a leash,” using the line to walk back tensions with the U.S. over its actions in Syria while also using it as “a warning to SDF to stay in their box.”
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