As Syria’s war reaches its ninth anniversary, Russian and U.S. soldiers are increasingly finding themselves face to face — quite literally — in the country’s northeast. A spate of confrontations over the last two months has opened questions about the fate of Syria’s north in the coming year. Following a relatively quiet 2019, the first two and a half months of 2020 have raised doubts as to whether the U.S. and its Kurdish allies will be able to peacefully maintain control of northeast Syria, and especially its crucial oil and gas fields.
Over the last six weeks, tense confrontations between Russian and American servicemen have occurred with increasing regularity in northern Syria. The first such incident was on Jan. 18, when American soldiers stopped a Russian convoy heading to the Rumeilan oil field. Repeated showdowns have occurred since: Russian military police were stopped on Jan. 25, and Russian helicopters buzzed a U.S. checkpoint on Jan. 28. Another checkpoint incident happened on Feb. 4, with Russian forces circumventing the roadblock, and U.S. troops again blocking Russian servicemen on the M4 highway near Amuda on Feb. 22. The most intense of these incidents occurred on Feb. 13, when a firefight erupted between Syrian regime militiamen and U.S. troops in the area, resulting in the death of one militia fighter.
The latter event is an ominous precedent for how things could unfold going forward. The area in question is less than 200 km from the Khasham oil field, the site of the now-infamous attack on U.S. forces by Russian Wagner mercenaries in February 2018. In that incident, roughly 600 heavily-armed private military contractors, equipped with tanks and artillery, spent four hours assaulting joint Kurdish-U.S. positions. The mercenaries suffered as high as 50 percent casualties, but it took massed firepower from nearly everything in the U.S. arsenal, including AC-130 gunships, to drive them off. No U.S. casualties were reported, but the unprecedented assault demonstrated the volatility of the region, where even strong military deterrents are no guarantee of avoiding conflict.
Some of the underlying causes behind the February 2018 battle remain in place. The primary one is rival claims to the oil and gas fields in the area. Numerous Russian state-affiliated companies have signed deals with the Syrian government. In December 2016, during a visit to Moscow, Syria’s oil and gas minister signed a deal granting the Russian firm Evropolis exclusive rights to fields in northeast Syria, along with 25 percent of all revenues derived from them. In December 2019, two more Russian companies, Mercury and Velada, received their own contracts to develop and produce Syrian gas. All three of these companies have been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch also presumed to control Wagner. The U.S., meanwhile, is attempting to secure the oil for its own local Kurdish clients, for whom it is a crucial source of revenue. There is no indication that the two sides are prepared to reach an understanding.
In one important aspect, the risk of conflict between U.S. and Russian forces in northeast Syria has declined in the two years since the Khasham battle — Vladimir Putin and the Russian government have severely curtailed Wagner’s autonomy. There are strong indications that Wagner acted, to a large extent, independently of Moscow, launching the assault on its own initiative: Wagner head Prigozhin had struck his own deals with several wealthy Syrian businessmen over retaking the oil fields in the area, with leaked communications revealing his promise of a “good surprise” for President Bashar al-Assad. The unexpectedly ferocious battle provoked a major scandal, with Prigozhin reportedly forced to grovel to the Kremlin with the excuse that he had not intended to cause violence. This was followed by a significant decline in Wagner’s activity and independence over the following year. It is impossible to say with certainty how many Wagner forces are present in northeast Syria today, but the quantity is undoubtedly far lower than two years ago.
Wagner may be diminished, but regular Russian forces are more entrenched than ever. Following an October 2019 deal with Turkey over the fate of north and northeast Syria, Moscow deployed ground forces to the region on a scale never before seen, conducting daily patrols in Hasakah, Ain Issa, and Amuda. These units have been supplemented by helicopters, a rare sight among Russian forces on the Syrian battlefield since the end of their major anti-ISIS campaign in 2017. Moscow’s presence on the ground in the area and its ability to escalate shows of force are at their highest point to date.
It seems likely that the question of northeast Syria between Russia and the U.S. will come down to a simple formula: Who wants it more? In this contest, Moscow’s political will appears likely to outlast Washington’s. Russia has already scored a number of PR coups in the area. For example, in November 2019, Russian media outlets could hardly conceal their glee when the country’s troops triumphantly took over a recently-abandoned U.S. base near Kobane. Russia’s Ministry of Defense seems to consider most of the area as already its own: Their maps of the region in the last few months have started to label large swaths of territory as held by the Syrian regime, despite its limited or nonexistent presence in much of the newly-appropriated land. In contrast to Putin’s zeal, the U.S. President Donald Trump’s commitment to maintaining American servicemen in northeast Syria has shown itself to be mercurial, at best.
What can we expect next? There are precedents of Russian behavior in similar scenarios that are worth considering. In the Caucasus republic of Georgia, 20 percent of whose territory is controlled by Russian-backed separatist entities, Russian forces and their locals allies regularly employ a tactic dubbed “borderization.” This entails slowly moving forward border fences along the disputed and ill-defined frontline, with the result that villagers on the Georgian side of the line regularly awaken to find that part of their land now lies behind a barrier erected during the night. These sorts of provocations and incremental advances are carried out in northeast Syria as well, especially by local proxies. Syrian intelligence agencies have already indicated that they plan to escalate their sabotage activities in the area. U.S. troops have recently come under attack by bombs carried by drones of unknown origin. The drama in northeast Syria is just beginning to unfold.
Neil Hauer is an independent analyst focused on Syria, Russia, and the Caucasus. Based in Tbilisi, Georgia, he served as senior intelligence analyst at The SecDev Group, an Ottawa-based geopolitical risk consultancy, for three years. He is presently engaged primarily on Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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