On Aug. 18 an improvised roadside bomb exploded in eastern Syria, killing a Russian general and wounding two servicemen. The casualties also included a number of Syrians with the National Defense Forces (NDF), a pro-government militia, who along with the Russians were surveying the area in al-Mayadeen, east of the city of Deir ez-Zor. According to one version of events, the group was assigned to the area in order to assist the local NDF, which acts autonomously from Iran and focuses on fighting local ISIS cells.
Unlike Iranian proxies and Syrian regime military units that attacked American soldiers near the Conoco oil field on the same day that bomb went off — and on one recent occasion opened fire on a U.S. patrol — Moscow has been scaling down its activities in the eastern part of the country. This stands in contrast to earlier attempts by Russian forces to solidify their position in the Trans-Euphrates area and compete with American patrols in undeclared “road wars.” Moscow is still conducting patrols but the frequency of collisions has noticeably decreased. Russian and American military patrols came face to face on two occasions in early June, and the latest altercation occurred on Aug. 25, with U.S. soldiers sustaining injuries. To be sure, Russian forces will continue to occasionally pressure the Americans, and they may even try to strengthen their positions on the ground, for instance by providing air cover to convoys. Such actions may well be designed to test the boundaries of the Russia-U.S. deconfliction agreement.
Given recent events on the left bank of Euphrates, however, a more cautious position does not make much sense. Developments of late include the formalization of relations between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the U.S. through the signing of an oil deal, the emergence of new political alliances like the Peace and Freedom Front, and negotiations between the Future Syria Party and representatives from Idlib, Hama, and Homs. In addition, there has also been a wave of assassination attempts on tribal leaders, heightening pressure among the Arabs and Kurds, both within the SDF and beyond.
The oil question
Russia’s sluggish reaction to the oil deal between Delta Crescent Energy, an American firm, and the SDF is generally perceived as evidence of Moscow’s involvement in negotiations on the future of eastern Syria, as well as on the question of safeguarding the Syrian regime in the face of renewed pressure from sanctions. A declaration on behalf of the Kurdish representatives that Russia could benefit economically from dealing with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria fueled talk that the arrival of Russian investors might help to ease tensions in eastern Syria.
Ostensibly, the SDF declaration seems like a diplomatic ruse. In other words, the SDF seems to be using the threat of Russian influence to apply pressure on the U.S. administration to obtain additional guarantees regarding its autonomous status. However, it was actually Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who first raised the prospect of Russian involvement in eastern Syria. The Turkish leader offered Russian President Vladimir Putin the chance to modernize the oil fields in Deir ez-Zor as a way to boost the Syrian economy. Erdogan’s offer might seem like a joke to some, given that Turkey was already involved in one of the schemes to ship oil from the area under SDF control via Iraqi Kurdistan. That said, Erdogan’s offer should be read in the context of his desire to use the Astana format — bringing together Russia, Turkey, and Iran — to further erode the independence of the quasi-autonomous region.
In December 2019 the Syrian Parliament green-lighted the activities of two Russian oil companies in eastern Syria. One of them, Mercury, was supposed to have begun exploratory work in the Trans-Euphrates region. It subsequently emerged that Mercury is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and restaurateur famous for his close ties to Putin and association with the private military company Wagner Group. According to the initial plans, Mercury’s activities were to take place in regime-controlled territory. Yet rumors have it that this plan has hit roadblocks due to opposition from Syrian businesses involved in oil smuggling. This, in turn, may have been the real trigger for the wave of negative PR criticizing Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Russian media back in May.
Another Russian company that may increase its activity in Syria is owned by Gennady Timchenko, a Kremlin-linked businessman who also features on the American sanctions list. In addition to its interests in phosphate mining and the operation of the Tartus sea port, in 2017 Timchenko’s company Stroytransgaz announced the completion of its southern gas processing plant (GPZ-1), 50 km from Homs. The company also announced plans to complete a northern gas processing plant (GPZ-2), located 75 km to the south-east of Raqqa, as part of a deal signed as early as 2007. While Timchenko’s phosphate-exporting business is up and running — this author once witnessed the chemicals being transported in carriages via a narrow roadway — progress on the gas-related ventures has been slower. The GPZ-2 plant, for instance, has yet to become officially operational even though the company promised as early as December 2017 that it would be finished in 18 months.
Overall, Moscow could potentially take more active steps toward engagement in eastern Syria and even put forward schemes to protect itself from the effects of the Caesar Act. That would include refraining from any sales of energy resources directly to the regime via actors like the Qaterji brothers, even if oil smuggling volumes have already dropped since the Caesar Act came into force. It would also mean that Russia would direct resources toward the so-called “grey zones” that have not yet fully come under regime control, and in so doing aid Syrian reconstruction. Judging from past experience, however, even when Moscow has the latitude to pull off a more sophisticated approach, in the end it always chooses the path that is acceptable to the Syrian regime and helps to boost its legitimacy.
A wait-and-see approach
Russia’s current reticence differs from its earlier approach at the onset of Syria’s strict quarantine in April-June, when Moscow took part in joint patrols with Ankara, negotiated with the SDF, and even considered building a military base in the Kurdish enclave in northeast Syria. Recent comments from the Russian Ministry of Defense on the clashes between regime and U.S. forces were rather pro forma. The most likely reason for this inertia lies in Moscow’s reluctance to be associated with actors seeking to erode the quasi-autonomy of the Trans-Euphrates region. Instead, Russia prefers to stand to the side and watch events unfold, while contemplating the right moment to jump in as a mediator and reap the political rewards.
Whether this wait-and-see approach will yield much success is another matter though. The decision by the U.S. last October to partially withdraw from northern Syria offered contradictory lessons for Russia. Moscow was quick to use the American withdrawal to hand over materiel to the Assad army. Moreover, Russia and Turkey have been able to expand their cooperation on the eastern bank of Euphrates, as was presumed by the Astana format and later by the Adana accord. By contrast, the reduction in the American presence provoked new tensions between Ankara, Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus, making it necessary for Russia to send additional troops to the country along with three battalions of military police.
The expansion of Russia’s presence thus cannot be directly converted into an expansion of its influence in Syria, nor does it necessarily give Moscow any new strategic opportunities. In other words, it would be a mistake for Russia to try to build its Syrian policy on the assumption that America will withdraw from the country sometime in the future. To begin with, the Russian military is not well-equipped to communicate with the local population. They can vie with American patrols in road wars or make a point in conversation with the locals, but their engagement is constrained by a lack of translators and specialists. For example, the Russians do not hear candid opinions from locals in the south-east of Syria, who fear divulging their views in front of translators connected with the Syrian mukhabarat — an issue even pro-government Russian experts acknowledge. As an example, they mentioned an episode that took place in Hasakeh Province, where local residents staged protests against the Russian presence in the area. Russian military police did not delve into the nuances and simply dismissed the problems as the product of foreign plots, in keeping with the best traditions of Russian state-owned TV.
Furthermore, Russia’s expectations that American control of northwestern Syria will soon wither away have obviously not panned out. And that is despite the emergence of a new formation within the Syrian forces that the Russian Ministry of Defense has dubbed Zaefratie (“Trans-Euphrates”) and Russia offering a deal to the eastern tribes based on the reconciliation agreements in the south-west. By contrast, the U.S. Caesar Act has only boosted the SDF’s position, given its control over both oil and crop fields. Moscow, for its part, is struggling to capitalize on the Americans’ scaled-down presence. Moreover, Russia cannot align itself with the Syrian government’s policy to destabilize the SDF, under which Syrian special forces are disguising themselves as fake ISIS cells. If Russia wants to present itself as a reliable negotiating partner, it has to refrain from backing such efforts.
By blocking the July UN resolution regarding the shipment of humanitarian aid via routes in eastern Syria, Russia made it clear that its real aim in the Trans-Euphrates is to help the regime further tighten its grip over the area. Russian private military companies have also attempted to use informal agreements between Damascus and local tribes to occupy oil fields. In the end, the locals decided against supporting the Russians while Moscow could not formally offer backing to mercenaries and protect them from American airstrikes.
The Kurds and the tribes
As noted by Aidar Aganin, deputy director of the Foreign Policy Planning Department at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a recent article, Moscow needs to try to “tactically woo tribes into political dialogue.” The tribes should also be invited to help restore the effectiveness of Syrian state institutions, which might advance the development of their own territories, Aganin wrote. Russian diplomats and military officials from the Russian Reconciliation Center have supposedly engaged in close dialogue with the Kurds, as well as with various tribes, who asked for favors such as rebuilding the bridge across the Euphrates that was blown up by the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Russian diplomats make a big song and dance out of the fact that a delegation from the Syrian Tribal Council in the northeast visited Russia in 2014, before the Kremlin announced plans to intervene in the country. In reality, though, Moscow is using the old trick of selling its own policy amid squabbles between local leaders as though it has been accepted by the Syrian people.
Moscow used the arrival of the Syrian Tribal Council, along with representatives from tribes backing Iran and Assad such as Nawaf al-Bashir and mediators, to Sochi in 2018 as proof that representatives of all Syria’s ethnic groups and confessions were present at the event, thus providing impetus for the formation of the Syria Constitutional Committee. This claim was aided by the role of the opposition politician Ahmad Jarba as a mediator in the process. However, Damascus continues to throw wrenches into the committee’s work, and the regime is even refusing to accommodate entities like the Cairo group — a Moscow-friendly opposition group — into the political system. All this means that the prospect of any serious changes to the constitution remain distant. Furthermore, following the escalation in Idlib, Ankara is taking into account Moscow’s attempts to balance between Turkey and its regional opponents with the aim of constraining the Turkish role in the committee representing the opposition.
Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) veterans in Syria and Iraq told this author that the Russian military cannot offer better financial rewards to the Kurds than the present SDF-administered regime, yet “we still benefit from the Russians staying engaged in dialogue and keeping their facilities in northeastern Syria.” This, they argue, allows the Russians to bolster their confidence, while also making sure that the door for dialogue with Assad remains open. Otherwise, Assad’s forces in areas such as Qamishli would be obliterated in a matter of days.
Going forward, Moscow will try to pressure Assad to introduce at least some superficial changes to the political system against the current backdrop of steadily worsening economic problems. Moscow expects to sell this as evidence that the country is going through a much-needed transformation. Meanwhile, even using the 2021 elections to boost Assad’s legitimacy — by courting support from different confessional groups — may not be straightforward. To mobilize support among loyalists in the east of the country, Russia cannot associate itself with those aiming to undermine the SDF alliance.
Anton Mardasov is a non-resident scholar in MEI's Syria Program and a non-resident military affairs expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) focusing on Syria, Iraq, and extremist organizations. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images