Euphrates: the new conflict line between Washington and Moscow

Originally published in the Greek weekly newspaper “Paraskinio”, issue 618, p. 39, on Feb. 16

After halting ISIS in eastern Syria, the region that separates the Kurdish militias supported by the US and Assad forces supported by Russia and the militias backed by Iran has been prolonged. The current map confirms what I mentioned in a previous article (Paraskinio 2/9/2017, The Tillerson-Lavrov meeting and the road map of the political solution in Syria) about the existence of an initial agreement between Russians and Americans so that the region east of Euphrates river be under American control and the west under Russian control. Russia has far more troops and equipment in Syrian territory than US and allies such as Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani militias organized and controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. It believes, therefore, that it has many more rights to exploit the major oil and gas fields to the east of the Euphrates, which puts it in the risk of playing under the table.

According to information from a credible source, on the morning of 7 February, a Russian military aircraft Ilyushin, which is part of the force of the Russian base in Kmeimim on the Syrian coast, carried about 150 soldiers of the private security company Wagner, mainly in the city of Deir ez-Zor, center of the Russian forces to the east of Syria. At ten o’clock that same day, this group, backed by an enormous number of Assad forces, moved to the eastern bank of the Euphrates, in particular around the Khashram village overlooking Koniko, the largest natural gas field in Syria, under control of Kurdish militias. A few minutes later, a squadron of American aircrafts began bombarding the area. Within an hour, the Russian forces quickly returned to their positions to the west of the Euphrates bringing with them many dead and injured.

Two days after the incident, the Russian Ministry of Defense admitted that Russian forces were bombed by the US, leaving huge losses, which the Pentagon confirmed in a brief statement. Information says the Russian security company Wagner lost more than thirty elements while about forty were injured. Also, there have been considerable losses in the forces of Assad. The conflict between the Russian and the American side was predicted in my previous article (Paraskinio 30/9/2017, The Syrian East will host the post-terrorism struggle), but this attack has a dark side to be enlightened.

Three days before this conflict, a Western source confirmed that there was a meeting between a representative of the Kurdish forces and a representative of the Khmemim Russian base, and discussed about the role of Moscow in the Turkish operation “Olive Branch” against the Kurds of Afrin. The Kurdish envoy has offered the Russian side permission for the Russian and Assad forces to access the gas and oil fields east of the Euphrates in exchange for preventing Turkish airborne bombings in Afrin. Moscow, of course, accepted the offer and subsequently invaded the eastern bank of the Euphrates towards Koniko north of the city of Deir ez-Zor. However, Washington, which was not part of this agreement, had another point of view.

Washington, which controls eastern Syria where the available oil reserves are estimated at one billion barrels, will not leave its areas of influence in any way. On the other hand, Moscow, which still pays a high price in human and military resources to keep Assad in power, does not want to emerge from the Syrian conflict with empty hands. Within this tense scene, the conflict by proxies in the Syrian crisis is transformed into conflict of elephants, or in conflict of superpowers. Moscow has lost soldiers from US bombings and will take revenge. The following days may be very dangerous for the area and the fire will expand.