Beirut— Less than fifteen months ago, everything seemed to be going well for Vladimir Putin in his client state of Syria and his efforts to save his Syrian ally, President Bashar al-Assad. Rebels in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, had fled from the Syrian army, Assad-allied Iranian commanded militias and heavy Russian aerial attacks.
Russia perfected similar tacts in its last war with Chechnya and it had shown positive results in Syria: Syrian and foreign militias surrounded, starved and shelled rebel-held cities while Russia jets bombed until the civilians fled and, in some cases, insurgents made deals to leave for other areas of Syria. It’s going on now in Ghouta, near Damascus.
The United States, when headed by a reluctant President Barack Obama, spent months trying to persuade Putin to stop the fighting, ease Assad out of power and replace him with some sort of unity government. US Secretary of State John Kerry had made periodic diplomatic pilgrimages to Moscow to forge at least a ceasefire but got nowhere.
And back then why would Putin listen to the Americans? Obama kept the US on the sidelines and intended to keep them there. Filling the vacuum, Putin joined with Islamic-ruled Iran and formerly hostile Turkey in an alliance designed to keep Assad in place and cement Putin’s new role as sultan of a loose Middle East caliphate run from the Kremlin.
But that was then.
Under Trump, things changed. Now it appears that the Trump Administration has decided to derail Putin’s march to regional prominence generally and his plans for Syria in particular. Syrian government sources in Beirut say that Trump aims to make it impossible to resolve the Syrian conflict without Washington’s input. Trump has done so by placing a permanent American military presence in eastern and southern Syria, nominally in alliance with anti-Assad Kurdish and Arab tribes. “Trump made the US an uninvited guest at the table,” a Syrian official said.
The main areas of American operation are near Deir Ez-Zor in eastern Syria and, recently, Al-Tanf in the southeast. Both straddle main roads into Iraq. In addition, the Americans and its allies block Assad’s access to one of the country’s main natural gas fields not far from Deir Ez-Zor.
In effect, Washington took a page out of Putin’s own hybrid warfare playbook, honed to effect in Crimea: Use allied indigenous forces as a front for its own military intervention.
There are angers in Trumps maneuver. A few direct conflicts with Syrian forces have taken place, with the US bombing from the air. Recently, one action that included Russians.
On February 7, Syrian regular army troops along, with local pro-Assad tribal militias and Iranian-trained foreign units, tried to cross the Euphrates River south of Deir Ez-Zor eastward into the American zone. The attack was repelled and at some point, the US unleashed artillery and drone bombers on the pro-Assad fighters. A group of Russian mercenaries belonging to a unit known as the Wagner group was hit at a village called Tabiya. Just what the Wagner fighters were doing there, whether they took part in fighting and how many Russian deaths occurred is a mystery. Associates of the Wagner group put the Russian deaths in the hundreds; Der Spiegel, the German magazine, quoted Syrian sources saying it was less than a dozen. Other estimates range up to a few score.
In any event, the Kremlin made little noise about the carnage, possibly because Wagner is not fully under its control and Putin didn’t want to seem to endorse its activities.
On the other hand, Moscow complained loudly about the arrival of hundreds of American troops in the frontier enclave of Al-Tanf which lies along a highway to Iraq and not far from Jordan. Previously, Al-Tanf was used by the US to train fighters to battle the Islamic State, the jihadist group fighting Assad; Russia is now wondering why, since the Islamic State has been defeated, the Americans and their allies are still in Al-Tanf.
On February 19, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, groused that, “The unilateral steps made by the U.S., which declared the 55-kilometer area near Al-Tanf (as) its zone if influence is something we did not agree on.” He said the area is used as a rear safe area by terrorists to “recover moral and physical strength.” The “zone must be closed immediately,” Lavrov declared.
The Trump Administration has not responded. In January, a State Department official hinted at the main reason for the blockage of the roads both from Deir Ez-Zor and Al-Tanf into Iraq: to jam an Iranian land bridge from Iranian-dominated Iraq into Syria and on to Lebanon, where the Iranian-sponsored militia Hezbollah is based. The U.S. wants “to not only diminish Iranian foreign influence in Syria generally, but to protect our allies from the very real threat Hezbollah poses in southwest Syria to our allies,” State Department official David Satterfield told a Senate committee. By allies, he meant Israel and Jordan.
This suggests a long-term presence of the Americans in Syria. For now, the US is undercutting Putin’s desire to stage manage Syria’s destiny by himself. Originally, Putin had only to join his Middle East ambitions with those of Iran, which also wants to project influence and power, and with Turkey, preoccupied with crushing signs of Kurdish separatism in Syria. That alliance dominated the military and diplomatic scene in Syria for two years.
Now, Putin must contend with two other players whose interests are in conflict with his own. One is Israel, which worries about Iran approaching its borders. Israel has responded with occasional bombings of Iranian positions.
Then there’s the US under Trump, who has brought his anti-Iranian posture to the conflict by putting American troops on the ground. No longer is Washington sending its chief diplomat to Moscow to beg an end to the war. It’s now Lavrov entreating Washington. It must be especially galling for Putin to see Trump, on whom he had placed hopes of better relations than with Obama, countering him in Syria.
One danger, of course, is that Russia and the US come into direct conflict either in the air or on the ground —hence, the worry about a possible Kremlin response to the deaths of the Russian mercenaries.
In any event, none of the outside players are primarily concerned about the death and destruction ins Syria that could go on for some time. Rather, all are engaged in geopolitical maneuvering: Russia vs. the US; Iran vs. the US; Israel vs Iran; Turkey vs. the Kurds. Syria is a spectator in its own demise. That’s bad news for a country already mortally wounded.
This piece ran in Russian in Moscow New Times.
Brookings lays out Putin’s problems.