The countries involved in the Syrian conflict are now competing for control of oil-rich desert areas of the country, suggesting that they are drawing up further goals, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
Battle for the Syrian desert
All eyes are on the battle for Raqqa in northern Syria this week, where Islamic State (IS) group fighters are holed up, and the Turks, Russians, Americans, Kurds and Syrian regime are all trying to coordinate the fighting to match their goals in an attempt to take control of this important city that marks the military border with Turkey.
The forces are fighting in Syria because Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) have now taken back control of Mosul in northern Iraq, previously the IS headquarters, and the US has decided to open a key military base to oversee Syrian desert areas.
Since the beginning of this year, the US has begun to become more involved militarily in Syria, not only by air but also on the ground, with troop numbers climbing every month. It has opened ground bases, the most notable being the Al-Tanf base which now houses hundreds of US and Norwegian soldiers and is being used to control the area from Palmyra in central Syria to the Syrian-Iraqi border in the east.
In June, US forces targeted Iran-backed forces attempting to penetrate the Syrian desert in order to establish a strategic route connecting Iraq and Syria and thus to the Mediterranean. Iran is hostile to the US intervention in Al-Tanf because it blocks the expansion of Iran-backed PMF forces in Syria, and it has responded by attempting to open a second route connecting Iraq and Syria between the Al-Tanf border crossing in the south and the Al-Qaim border crossing in the north.
Iran has sent hundreds of PMF fighters from Iraq into Syria and increased the presence of militias it supports in the area. It has also been able to create military outposts, alarming the US because they are close to the Al-Tanf military base and road between Baghdad and Damascus. Iran-backed forces have targeted combatants in Deir Al-Zor in eastern Syria, claiming that these were IS fighters as a pretext to cover up the advance of its forces in the region.
A spokesman for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard said on 20 June that Tehran had “laid the groundwork for a new phase in the Syrian conflict” and that it was acting “independently not only from the US but also from Russia.” Some believe the US has turned a blind eye to Iranian militia incursions in Deir Al-Zor in order to force these militias to fight IS in the region.
Meanwhile, for the first time in the conflict in Syria the US shot down a Syrian military jet this week in confirmation that it has decided to prevent the Syrian regime and its ally Iran from expanding into eastern and northern Syria. In response, Russia suspended an agreement with the US-led coalition in Syria, threatening to target US planes.
The US responded by threatening to use advanced missiles at the Al-Tanf base, sending a message to Moscow that Washington will not surrender the Syrian-Iraqi border to forces loyal to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Iran and will block a route connecting Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran.
Russia demonstrated its missile capabilities on 23 June in a mission aiming to decimate IS supplies by launching six rockets from two Russian frigates and one submarine in the Mediterranean.
While Iran, Russia, the US and separatist Kurdish forces in Syria are trying to secure their interests and increase their gains ahead of the IS demise, Turkey is not participating in the activities in the Syrian desert. There is concern that it has not been given US permission to invade Raqqa, which could jeopardise its chances of having a seat at the negotiating table to discuss the fate of Syria and the region after the elimination of IS.
Commenting on the distribution of forces in eastern and northern Syria, Saeed Moqbel, an opposition figure, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “Turkey wants to be present in the north of the country and is deploying 7,000 soldiers on the border and can control some 20,000 Syrian opposition fighters. It is likely to enter Raqqa because the US may allow Ankara this privilege in return for downgrading its relationship with Russia.”
“Meanwhile, the Iranians, Russians and regime forces want to control Damascus and the coastal cities in western Syria, while the US is focussed on eastern and southern Syria. The Iraqi-Jordanian border regions are US spheres of influence and are untouchable by Russia.”
“However, Iran’s ambitions are boundless, especially since it is backing sectarian non-Iranian militias and is not sending in Iranian troops. Instead, it is sacrificing the militia fighters in order to antagonise the US and open a road connecting Baghdad and Damascus.”
All these countries and forces have set their sights on Mayadin, Bokamal and Deir Al-Zor, and all are talking about the battle to grab these locations from IS control after the group moved its capital from Raqqa in April and renamed it Wilayet Al-Kheir. This is also an oil-rich province, perhaps another reason to forge new alliances to take control of it, and it is a strategic link between Iraq, Syria and Jordan.
The military situation in eastern and northern Syria does not indicate a de-escalation, as called for at the sixth round of the Astana Conference this week. Instead, there has been an escalation of the fighting, threatening further disputes in Arab, regional and international political and military alliances.
US President Donald Trump has not made clear his policy on Syria, but there is some urgency that he does so because of the situation in Raqqa and the battle to control the Syrian desert, as well as the need to ensure that US movements in Syria are based on a clear strategy regarding rivals on the ground.
Thus far, the US has not declared its goals in Syria except to eliminate terrorism, and US politicians have consistently said they do not want to fight regime, Iranian or Russian-backed forces but only IS in the country. They have not presented a clear picture of what the US intends to do after that goal has been accomplished.
Russia’s position is ambiguous, since while Moscow is clear in its support for the Al-Assad regime in western Syria, it is less enthusiastic about supporting attempts to expand towards Raqqa in the north and the desert in the east. It appears to be ready to abandon these regions to the Americans in return for keeping exclusive control of territories west of the Euphrates River around Damascus and on the coast.
Farid Al-Bek, an opposition figure, said that it appeared that Russian President Vladimir Putin would “take several Syrian gifts to his meeting with Trump in Hamburg this month, which could improve relations. New agreements could be announced, including shuffling Russian and US priorities in Syria and redistributing the roles of regional countries in the conflict, most notably regarding Russia’s enthusiasm for Trump’s plan to create safe zones.”
The Syrian conflict is thus entering another high-intensity phase, whose features will be clearer after the demise of IS. The elimination of the group will create new goals for those involved in the conflict – either to directly continue it or to reach an agreement on the future of the country.