Originally published in the Greek weekly newspaper “Paraskinio”, issue 598, p. 40, on Sept. 30, 2017
In recent weeks, we have seen a rapid progress of Russia in the Syrian arena and its allies on the one hand, and of America and the Kurds on the other. Russia has increased the direct human presence on the battlefield, one of the main reasons for the expansion of the Assad-Iran coalition to the east of Syria and the acquisition of land by ISIS. The advance of forces of this alliance in Deir ez-Zor was considered a major achievement by the Russian leadership. In the north, the US-Kurdish alliance is still fighting ISIS on the streets of Raqqa. Thus, the Russian success in Deir ez-Zor was a warning that the Americans’ plan for eastern Syria would derail. That is why the US Department of Defense has explicitly stated that it is not allowed for the forces of Assad and its paramilitary groups to advance on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river. The US also urged Kurdish forces to launch a new battle for the Deir ez-Zor province. In the midst of these developments on both sides, the atmosphere becomes increasingly tense and sensitive.
Deir ez-Zor province is one of the largest in Syria. It is known for its many oil and gas fields. In a report published a few days ago by a Western energy source, these resources can produce more than one billion barrels of oil, and the region’s natural gas is one of the best and cleaner types. This has placed the region at the heart of the attention of many players, especially the US, Russia and Turkey. The US’s strong stance on Turkey’s expansion after the completion of the “Euphrates Shield” operation makes the Turkish intention to claim the region’s energy reserves to remain a dream. Therefore, the claim is confined between the Russian and the American side.
At a recent meeting between Tillerson and Lavrov, the details of which I mentioned in a previous article a month ago, the Syrian crisis was thoroughly discussed. My source assured me that Tillerson presented a map that defines the areas of influence on each side by cutting the Syrian territory into two parts: east of the Euphrates river including the Manbij and Tabqah cities under American influence and west of the Euphrates under Russian. The Russian Minister asked for time to study it before answering. However, the recent situation in the region confirms that the Russian side is not satisfied with this division.
Each side tries to prevent the other in any possible way from advancing. The agreement reached between Lebanese Hezbollah’s terrorist organization and ISIS to transfer it to the Syrian border with Iraq and later to southeastern Raqqa countryside, taking into account that 150 fighters than those later transferred to their militia Assad, is an attempt to prevent the Kurdish militias from advancing towards the city of Deir ez-Zor. Information from the interior of Syria confirms that ISIS has paved the way for the Kurdish militias to pass through in order to gain access to Deir ez-Zor, which is confirmed by the Russian Ministry of Defense through photographs taken from unmanned remote-controlled aircraft and showing moving military phalanges belonging to the Kurdish militias passing next to ISIS positions without being intercepted.
Five days ago, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced the death of the commander of the Russian forces in Syria, general Valeriy Asapov, and two other Russian officers. A source of the Syrian opposition pointed out to me that Russia lost more than 35 officers and soldiers this month, as well as many fighters belonging to Russian private security companies killed during conflicts with ISIS in eastern Syria. However, Asapov’s death is too serious to consider that ISIS is behind. The general was under extreme secrecy somewhere in the city of Deir ez-Zor, far from the conflict regions. The Russian bombing, the second day of the general’s death, against the Kurdish militias north of Deir ez-Zor is a clear indication that Russia knows well who really is behind.
Oil has always been attractive to the US side in many international conflicts with the most recent in Iraq. On the other side, Russia, due to direct military support to Assad, needs to compensate for the financial cost of its involvement. Therefore, Deir ez-Zor is a piece of the Syrian crisis pie for both. Either the two sides will have to revise their calculations and move forward diplomatically, or the region will become the spark for a bloodier war.