All over social media, drive-by pundits are trying to turn the fight for Deir ez-Zor, ISIS’ last stronghold in eastern Syria, into a showdown between Russia and the U.S.
I don’t think it’s going to work, as signs are not propitious for either the U.S.-backed rebel fighters, or the appetite for long-term engagement by the U.S. What the Kurdish YPG and the SDF fighters can’t hold on their own, they’re probably going to lose eventually. Once there is no way to justify U.S. combat support as “attacking ISIS,” the support will dry up.
That said, a brief tour of the tactical situation. A week ago, I summarized the Iran-backed Syrian regime push toward Deir ez-Zor that started 1 September. The push moved quickly, and has continued its rapid success in the past seven days. Key positions on the west side of Deir ez-Zor have been secured by the regime coalition, including the airbase on the southern edge of the city.
In the last day, videos have been posted on social media showing convoys of vehicles “pouring into” Deir ez-Zor City under regime auspices. The city is not fully under Syrian army control, but the momentum is with the regime coalition.
Russian media report that Russian sappers are deploying to Deir ez-Zor to begin the systematic search for mines.
Moreover, a flurry of reports on Sunday indicated that Russian aircraft attacked ferries bearing people eastward out of Deir ez-Zor City across the Euphrates River. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights gave the count of fatalities as 34, including children. The factor most likely to have prompted the Russian attack is concern that ISIS and/or anti-regime rebels may be escaping across the river to regroup.
That would matter to the regime coalition, as it plans to cross the Euphrates and seize control of the entire province. In fact, it may have put the first forces across the river already, although that remains unconfirmed.
Late last week, images and video were published showing convoys of boats under tow and Russian combat bridging equipment on transport vehicles, heading eastward toward Deir ez-Zor. (The pre-existing bridges had long since been made impassable.)
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) September 7, 2017
A few hours ago, multiple sources began reporting on Twitter that the crossing of the Euphrates had started. Again, that is unconfirmed – and if it has happened, the best estimate is that at this point, it involves a small reconnaissance force crossing in boats. Although bridging equipment can be deployed very quickly, there is no evidence that forces on the ground have the control of the west bank of the river needed for such rapid deployment. (The crossing would most likely be attempted outside the city, far enough away to enable the regime force to flank the rebel offensive from the north.)
Meanwhile, the rapid advance of the regime coalition put the fire under the SDF rebels to launch a push of their own toward Deir ez-Zor from the northeast. They began pushing out of the SDF/YPG stronghold east of Raqqa over the weekend, moving quickly into the Khubar River valley, which runs southward to Deir ez-Zor and the Euphrates.
Here’s where it gets dicey. At some point – very soon – the diverging priorities of the rebels and their U.S. backers will become untenable. This is because the statements of the two parties about what is going on here – what the intention is – are different.
The rebel coalition inaugurated its operation with an announcement on 9 September that “Al-Jazeera Storm” was intended to take the east bank of the Euphrates. The implication was that the rebel force would defend the east bank, against the regime coalition attempting to cross over to it and seize control of the rest of the province.
SDF has officially announced launching operation Al-Jazirah Storm,to take the East Bank of the Euphrates in Deir Ez Zor Governorate
— تحيا الثورة السورية (@VivaRevolt) September 9, 2017
But the rebel coalition then announced on 11 September that it intends to liberate the city of Deir ez-Zor, and set up a council approved by its leaders to govern the city. It describes the current movement of forces as the “first phase” of this campaign. (Sorry you will have to Google translate the SDF Press news item. The fractured English is actually pretty understandable, and of equal importance, several Arabic-speaking Twitter users confirm the gist of the text.)
The U.S. initially stated, via the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), that we would support the rebels’ battle against ISIS as they advanced into the Khabur valley. The latest summary of U.S. coalition air strikes indicates that we have provided limited air support for this advance in the last few days, by attacking ISIS targets.
But OIR has not said the U.S. will support the rebels in an attempt to liberate Deir ez-Zor. Nor, in spite of the misleading headline at the Southfront article above, has the U.S. uttered any warning to the Syrian regime coalition about crossing the Euphrates. (The Southfront article acknowledges that this claim about U.S. intentions is unconfirmed.)
In fact, on 11 September, when a social media rumor started that U.S. warplanes had attacked regime coalition forces near Deir ez-Zor, the OIR spokesman issued a rare, categorical denial that there had been any such attack.
— OIR Spokesman (@OIRSpox) September 11, 2017
He emphasized that the U.S. priority is attacking ISIS.
At this point, as I have observed before, attacking ISIS now amounts to helping Iran gain control through her Syrian proxy of the Deir ez-Zor link in the Iranian land bridge to the Mediterranean. Once ISIS is effectively neutralized, the U.S. will have no more justification for attacking what the SDF/YPG rebel coalition is fighting against.
The rebels’ position in Deir ez-Zor Province will become untenable without U.S. support. I actually doubt that the rebels will try to get into the city itself any time soon, given the progress the regime coalition has already made. That battle could not be undertaken without air support, and it’s doubtful the U.S. would provide it, even with ISIS still left in the city. The risk of hitting regime coalition forces would be very high.
The rebels are more likely to try to consolidate a position of strength on the east bank of the Euphrates, and keep the regime coalition from advancing all the way to the Iraqi border. But, again, once ISIS is no longer an effective factor on the ground, the rebels will lose their air support in the province. They can’t hold out for very long against the combined forces of Russia, Iran, and Assad without that support.
Assuming we make no policy changes, the U.S. has nowhere to go from here, other than out – in an ignominious manner. Whatever one thinks of the Syrian rebels, the prospect of leaving them to eventually be rolled in eastern Syria by the regime coalition has to be distasteful for the reflection on our nation’s character and reliability.
It’s worth noting that regime control of the airbase in Deir ez-Zor is a geostrategic game-changer. Iran may not try to take advantage of that too soon, in large part because doing so would necessitate a reaction of some kind from Israel (with the tacit approval of Saudi Arabia and Jordan). But it will be a tectonic enough development to see Russian aircraft begin to use it.
If you want to understand why the Saudis are pressing Qatar so hard over Doha’s support for Iran, I urge you to stop wasting time with gossip about hacking and unfavorable news coverage in Qatari media, and recognize that all along, it’s been about this campaign for control of Syria.
A major rift between the Gulf Coalition states is only the beginning of the fell consequences we will see from Iran completing her land bridge to the Med. The land bridge will be an unbearable upset to the geopolitical status quo. No one in the region can simply sit by and watch it knock the ground out from under his feet. And no one will.