The United States this week reinforced its military presence in northeastern Syria. Six Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles were deployed to the area, and around 100 troops were added to the roughly 500 that are already present in Syria east of the Euphrates River. The US also continues to maintain a separate presence west of the Euphrates in the area around the base at al-Tanf, on the Syrian-Jordanian border.
The beefing-up of the US military presence appears to be a response to the increasing tempo of Russian attempts to harass US forces, and to expand Moscow's presence in Syria east of the Euphrates. On August 26, four US troops were wounded when the vehicle in which they were traveling collided with a Russian military vehicle.
The incident took place outside the town of Derik/Malkiyeh, at the northeastern tip of Syria close to the Tigris River and the border with Iraq. This area lies far east of the Euphrates, and well inside of an area designated as a US-controlled security zone. That is, the Russian presence in the area was itself a provocation. The collision with the US vehicle took place at a time when Russian military helicopters were deployed above the area. It appears to have been deliberately initiated by the Russian force.
This incident reflects a broader pattern. Moscow considers that the American presence in eastern Syria lacks a clear strategic context, and hence may be withdrawn if sufficient pressure is applied to it. Moscow wants to see Syria reunited under the rule of President Bashar Assad, as a weak and dependent client of Russia. The Kurdish-controlled, US-guaranteed area east of the Euphrates, comprising around 25% of the area of Syria, currently stands as a barrier to the achievement of this goal. (The Turkish enclave further west is an additional obstacle. Arguably, the Iranian area of de facto control in the south of the country represents a third barrier to Moscow's realization of its vision.)
The Russians therefore appear to be attempting to whittle away at the American presence, gradually expanding their own area of activities in the area, slowly and incrementally emptying the American presence of security content. This slow attempt at erosion appears to be the only option available to Russia in this area. Earlier they tried direct action. On February 7, 2018, a 500-man force led by fighters of the paramilitary Wagner Group crossed the Euphrates in an attempt to seize the adjacent Conoco (Tabiyeh) gas field. This was clearly an attempt to test US and allied will and to establish a precedent for unilateral seizure of territory. The Americans understood it as such, and the force was destroyed by US air power and artillery.
Russia is trying to make the US presence in eastern Syria more trouble than it is worth.
The Russians appear to have learned the lesson, but not in a way bringing resignation, or inaction. Rather, they have concluded that while direct confrontation may produce the Trump administration's instinct to hit back hard, a messy, ongoing campaign of daily harassment is likely to trigger the administration's equally developed low boredom threshold.
According to this view, if staying in eastern Syria starts to appear to be more trouble than it is worth, then given the absence of a clear strategic logic for the American presence, this might produce another of the moments at which the president suddenly focuses on the area, and orders a US withdrawal. President Donald Trump, after all, has already announced such a withdrawal twice – in December 2018 and October 2019. On both occasions, efforts by officials further down the food chain prevented the full implementation of the pullout.
Russia is seeking to draw the Kurdish authorities in this area back under its political patronage.
Parallel to the campaign of harassment, the Russians are seeking to slowly and incrementally draw the Kurdish ruling authorities in this area back under their political patronage. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with a delegation from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Moscow in early September. The delegation included Ilham Ahmed, head of the Syrian Democratic Council, the most senior executive body in the Kurdish-led de facto ruling authority. The visit forms part of an ongoing Russian-mediated dialogue between representatives of the Assad regime and the SDC.
Lavrov, in a statement issued following the meeting, spoke of the "promotion of inclusive constructive inter-Syrian dialogue in the interest of the soonest recovery and reinforcement of Syria's sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity."
This formal language and the political process of which it as a part fits comfortably with the ongoing process of harassment of US forces in eastern Syria. The intention is to covey a sense of the inevitability of the return of Assad and Russia to domination of the whole country, and therefore the pointlessness of the continuation of the small US mission, and the futility for US allies of placing any trust or capital on the American side.
So the contours of the Russian effort are clear. The question remains: has Moscow assessed the situation accurately? Is the ongoing harassment of the US presence, and the wooing of US Kurdish allies set to result in the speedy abandonment of eastern Syria by Washington?
The modest beefing up of US forces suggests that no immediate withdrawal is in the offing.
Firstly, the modest beefing up of the US force in the area over the last week suggests that no immediate withdrawal is in the offing. Rather, the increase in the deployment seems to indicate US concerns of a possible uptick in Russian actions, perhaps in the hope of precipitating a withdrawal before the elections in November. The strengthening of the force suggests a US desire to deter any such effort.
Secondly, it would be mistaken to assume that there is no US plan regarding Syria. A strategy does exist. As formulated largely by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and those around him, the US intention is to prevent Assad from normalizing his control of Syria and obtaining the wherewithal to begin reconstruction. This forms part of the larger approach by the US administration to use primarily economic and financial muscle to achieve outcomes in the Middle East. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act makes anyone doing business with the Assad regime subject to financial sanction.
But where does the modest deployment in eastern Syria fit in with this effort? The deployment keeps Syria's oil and some of its best agricultural land out of regime hands, and thus constitutes a further tool of economic pressure on Assad. Of course, the empowering of elements associated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in eastern Syria also angers Turkey. A quiet US effort is under way to sponsor talks between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and the non-PKK-associated Kurdish National Council in Syria (ENKS), to create a more inclusive political authority. The US special representative for Syria engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey, was in Syria this week in efforts to finalize this process.
Israel and Jordan would like to see the US deployment remain, because the US presence acts as a kind of tripwire for the Iranians and their associated militias.
The slow-moving contest over the ruins of Syria thus looks set to continue. The Russians like to try to convey a sense of their own inevitability. The US appears keen currently not to concede the matter. The six Bradleys that rolled across the border this week are a small but notable move in this ongoing contest of wills.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.