The U.S. policy in Syria continues to fly off the rails. U.S. backed forces there continue to defend a never-agreed-to No-Fly-Zone in the southeastern part of the country, centered around the town of Al Tanf, near the Jordanian border.
Shooting down a Syrian SU-22 by the U.S. near Raqqa because it threatened U.S.-backed SDF forces is a dangerous escalation of hostilities that has ended all communication between the U.S. and Russia.
In response Iran launched a ballistic missile strike on ISIS targets near Deir Ezzor. Consider the U.S. warned. According to a report from Southfront.org the U.S. is building a permanent base at Tabqa, west of Raqqa.
The U.S. is an invading presence in Syria. Let’s start there. There can be no justification for hostile actions against the SAA even if it strays too far from its primary mission to oust ISIS from its territory. To the Syrians, everyone except Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces are not welcome.
They will be unofficially tolerated as long as their missions are aligned for now. But, with multiple reports of ISIS convoys being allowed to leave Raqqa unmolested to reinforce the siege of SAA forces in Deir Ezzor that narrative is becoming harder to maintain.
Looking at a current map you can see that the SAA is attempting to cut off ISIS’s escape route from Raqqa as well as any further advances by Kurdish SDF forces south of the Euphrates River.
The U.S. has, since September of last year, been attempting to partition Syria into two parts with the goal of establishing a separate Kurdish country that will be U.S. friendly and allow the U.S. to establish bases closer to both Iran and the Russian southern border.
The Inciting Incident
The most cynical read of this situation is that the U.S. is acting as the de facto ISIS air force. And, while officially no one will admit to this, this is the operational truth on the ground.
And the response from Russia was swift. They will no longer communicate with the U.S. to coordinate the fight against ISIS, since it is becoming more and more obvious to even the casual observer that from the U.S.’s side, that fight is mostly symbolic.
So, expect the Russians to push the boundaries of what the U.S. keeps calling agreed to ‘de-confliction zones’ and the Russians keep vehemently denying.
The Syrian Arab Army cut off the U.S.-backed forces in Southeastern Syria last week by pushing to the Iraqi border. By making this move, described by Secretary of Defense James Mattis as, “unexpected,” the SAA have encircled U.S.-backed forces and cut them off from joining up with forces allied with SDF Kurdish forces, currently pushing ISIS out of Raqqa.
If this move by the SAA was unexpected to Mattis then he admits publicly he is incompetent.
More importantly, it cut off any possibility of the U.S. gaining territorial control over Deir Ezzor, to which the SAA is now pushing from Palmyra from the West as well as from the North.
And that’s what this is about. The U.S. has lost on nearly every front in recent weeks and is striking back to establish control of parts of Syria it is occupying illegally under the cover of fighting terrorism.
The Chess Game
Both the U.S. and Russia are playing cat and mouse in Syria at the moment. Putin is compiling a list of grievances to take to the U.N. The U.S. is trying to goad the Russians into striking back in such a way that they can play the victim card.
If Putin can get the U.N. to declare the U.S. the aggressor in any military clash between the two countries it will give Russia the color of international law to then aggressively defend Syria’s interests once the front lines coalesce in the west.
This means the SAA pushes west from Homs (see map above) and north from Palmyra to shorten the front lines and begin the assault to push the Kurds back and retake the rest of the country.
At the same time if the SAA encircles Raqqa and establishes control of the road from Raqqa to Deir Ezzor it blocks ISIS’s escape and seals off the southern half of the country from the U.S. and the SDF.
Moreover, the encirclement move strands the U.S. backed forces at al-Tanf and ensures that in order to link up the two U.S.-backed factions they would have to go through the SAA and reveal themselves as the aggressor in the conflict.
This would then allow Russia and Iran to retaliate and claim self-defense.
The extent to which President Trump is involved in any of this is unknown. But, from what I’ve heard he’s left this campaign to Mattis to run. And at this point Mattis has a choice, stand down or be left defending worthless pieces of Syria which has little to no bargaining power in the post-war process.
Now that we’re seeing rebels in the northern province of Idlib begging the Saudis and Qataris to kiss and make up so the money to them can start flowing again, the situation in there will resolve itself soon enough.
Make no mistake, Putin does not want to shoot down any U.S. planes. And the U.S. has steadfastly backed off of any formal conflict with Russia whenever they have drawn their red lines in the past.
After the bombing of the al-Shairat airbase if Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had gone to Moscow to do anything other than apologize the situation today would be much worse. Mattis’ red line at Tabqa and al-Tanf will not hold for much longer.