SYRIA is a mess. The confusing chain of factional loyalties appear to lead in a never-ending loop. With their common enemy, Islamic State, almost gone — they’ve now turned upon themselves. Mired among it all is the United States. And Russia. Moscow is a staunch supporter of Syria’s dictator, President Assad.
Washington wants him out, and national elections held across the war-torn country. Both are actively supporting the Syrian factions closest to their own cause. Exactly how much, however, is murky. The United States openly declares it has embedded its troops among Syrian rebels as ‘advisers’. It’s less forthcoming about the actions of its special forces, however.
Russia is proud of the activities of its air force operating out of bases handed over by President Assad. But it’s attempting to maintain ‘plausible deniability’ through the use of large units of ‘mercenaries’ when it comes to boots on the ground. A clash between the two superpowers was almost inevitable. It happened on February 7. Or it didn’t, if you believe Moscow’s official line that it had nothing to do with the attack. But now Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has issued a stark warning to the United States: don’t “play with fire”.
“Provocative, Dangerous Games’
“The US should stop playing very dangerous games which could lead to the dismemberment of the Syrian state,” Lavrov said at Moscow conference with Iranian and Syrian representatives addressing the crisis in the Middle East yesterday. It’s a thinly veiled reference to a recent battle on the banks of the Euphrates river, near the east Syrian city of Deir al-Zor.
Official Syrian sources concede some 500 pro-Assad fighters crossed to the eastern bank of the river in a surprise attack against what it claimed was an Islamic State stronghold. The United States hit back, hard. It says it had widely broadcast the presence of an encampment of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) there, supported by US military advisers and an artillery unit of US Marines.
These guns, and the massed firepower of US gunships and strike aircraft, killed some to two hundred attackers. The question remains: Exactly how many of the dead were Russian? Moscow says five. But a multitude of claims sourced through Russian social media say their sons and friends made up the bulk of the casualty list after two units supplied by the private mercenary company Wagner were ‘all but wiped out’. It’s in this context that Lavrov yesterday labelled US support for the largely Kurd SDF “provocative”.
Fragments of Empire
Foreign Minister Lavrov warned that he was “seeing attempts to exploit the Kurd’s aspirations”, and accused Washington of trying to seize control of Syrian territory through the use of ‘proxies’. He is referring to the independent ethnic and religious group that occupies much of the border region between Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The Turks have labelled the Kurds ‘separatists’ and ‘terrorists’ amid fiery clashes over decades of resisting calls for independence.
But the Kurds were also the only force that proved capable of standing against the relentless advance of Islamic State — even as Iraqi government troops dropped their weapons and ran. As such, they became a key ally for US and Coalition efforts in their counter-attack against the jihadist extremists. And their all-female sniper units won international fame. But now US NATO ally Turkey has invaded Syria’s northern border regions in a brutal bid to crush the Kurds’ new-found strength and confidence.
Lavrov rejected Western calls for Iranian forces to withdraw from Syria: Assad was within his rights to invite them in for help, he says. Exactly how President Donald Trump navigates the United States through this seething cauldron of conflicting interests remains to be seen. But there seems little end to the conflict ahead.