Collision Course

The US and Russia are getting closer than ever to coming to blows in Syria

By Abdel Bari Atwan

For the first time since the Syrian crisis began some seven years ago, there is a growing prospect of a military collision taking place between Russia and the United States over the oil and gas fields in and around Deir az-Zour. The US wants these wells to fall into the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) so they can be used to sustain a future Kurdish enclave or state in northern Syria. Russia wants them to revert to the sovereignty of the Syrian state so their revenues can help fund the country’s reconstruction.

On Sunday, the Russian defence ministry held the US responsible for the deaths of senior military advisor Lt.-Gen. Valery Asopov and two colonels who were accompanying him who were killed when their position was shelled by Islamic State (IS) forces in the village of Marat east of the Euphrates River. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov described the deaths as ‘the bloody price for two-faced American policy in Syria,’ adding that ‘the American side declares that it is interested in the elimination of IS … but some of its actions show it is doing the opposite and that some political and geopolitical goals are more important for Washington.’ The accusation was unprecedented, and led to a sharp rise in tension between the two sides.

The village was the first site to be recaptured by Syrian government forces east of the Euphrates, and was being used as a base from which to control Deir az-Zour and retake the oil and gas fields to its east.

The more damning accusation, in the view of many observers, is Russia’s claim to  have evidence supported by photographs of collusion between US forces backing the SDF and IS east of the Euphrates. It also accuses the Americans of being behind the major assault launched last week by Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) from Idlib governorate, which they control, against government positions in Hama, aimed at slowing the eastward advance of Syrian and Russian forces towards Deir az-Zour and the oilfields.

On Tuesday, Russian Defence Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Moscow was still awaiting replies from Washington to questions about ‘whom US Special Forces in Syria are fighting with and against’. He referred to images of former IS positions that had been taken by American Special Forces that showed no sign of fighting or aerial bombardment having taken place, and which lacked the protective defences that would normally be expected, implying collusion between the two sides.

The US has had nothing to say about these charges, or about allegations by Iranian commanders that the US held back from fighting IS in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq and Syria.

One of the triggers of the Syrian crisis was that the government in Damascus turned down proposals to build a pipeline through Syria to carry Qatari gas to Europe. It did so partly at the request of Russia, which feared that the project was aimed at  under-cutting its own gas exports to Europe. Now another ‘oil war’ seems to be looming in the east of the country.

This poses a serious question: Is the ‘war on terror’ declared by the US a mere façade, or are Russia’s accusations of US collusion with IS and al-Qaeda off the mark? And when did this alleged collusion begin, at the outset of the crisis or just in the past year? We cannot offer answers at present. The American side has not presented evidence to disprove the Russian claims. But no evidence is needed of the US’s strong backing for the Kurdish SDF as it fights to secure control of al-Raqqa and the Deir az-Zour oilfields, and takes steps toward establishing a Kurdish state in northern Syria by holding municipal elections to be followed by parliamentary polls.

Russia can be expected to exact revenge for the killing of its commander and two colonels, as it did by launching airstrikes targeting Nusra Front commanders in Idlib in retaliation for an earlier attack on its troops. This could result in US forces on Syrian soil coming under Russian attack, potentially sparking the fuse of a confrontation.

The next big crisis brewing in the region may not stem from this week’s independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, but from growing tensions between the US and Russia – though Washington’s ambiguous attitude to that referendum, and to Syrian Kurdish separatist plans, is inextricably related to that tension.