Colonel Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for the US led Coalition against ISIS, has spoken of the Syrian government today in more positive terms than any other US official since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
Specifically Dillon is reported to have said that the US led anti-ISIS Coalition is purely focused on destroying ISIS, and that to the extent that the Syrian government also acts to destroy ISIS that is welcomed by the US led Coalition and by extension by the US
If it looks like they are making a concerted effort to move into ISIS-held areas, and if they show that they can do that, that is not a bad sign. We are here to fight ISIS as a coalition, but if others want to fight ISIS and defeat them, then we absolutely have no problem with that.
A very strong health warning is in order. Colonel Dillon is a relatively low ranking official though one holding an important post. It is not clear to what extent he actually speaks for the US government. Of course there is also the possibility – unfortunately unavoidable when considering any statement made by any US official on the Syrian issue – that he is not speaking honestly and that his words are intended to deceive.
However there is one strong reason for thinking that Colonel Dillon’s words may indeed reflect current US policy. These are the further comments he made specifically about the Syrian army’s advances towards the town of Abu Kamal, an important town on the Iraqi border in the Euphrates river valley
If they want to fight ISIS in Abu Kamal and they have the capacity to do so, then that would be welcomed. We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business. We are in the killing-ISIS business. That is what we want to do, and if the Syrian regime wants to do that and they’re going to put forth a concerted effort and show that they are doing just that in Abu Kamal or Deir Ezzor or elsewhere, that means that we don’t have to do that in those places.
These appear to be carefully chosen words, which touch closely on the present situation in Syria.
As I discussed recently, the situation in Syria has been transformed in recent weeks by the lightning advances of the Syrian army, which following the relative stabilisation of the situation in western Syria has been advancing against ISIS into eastern and central Syria along two axes – one in central Syria, from Palmyra along the main highway towards the besieged eastern city of Deir Ezzor, and the other in the north, from Aleppo through southern Raqqa Province and also towards Deir Ezzor.
In the last few days the Syrian army has launched a further offensive against ISIS from the south, with Syrian troops advancing northward along the Iraqi border into Deir Ezzor province from the new positions they recently captured from ISIS just north of the US military base in al-Tanf. Here is how the Al-Masdar news agency described this development two days ago
Backed by several paramilitary allies, the Syrian Arab Army made an impressive advance in the Syrian desert along the Syrian-Iraqi borders in the direction of Deir Ezzor entering the oil-rich province for the first time in years since the fall of the Syrian Badiyah in the hands of the Islamic State terrorists.
On the route of the advance, the Syrian Armed Forces captured Ard Al-Washash, Al-Waer Dam, Al-Waer Canyon region, and much of the desert near the T2 Pumping Station. The latest advances leave the government forces less than 25 km from the T2 Base in Deir Ezzor’s southeastern countryside and some 100 km away from ISIS’s stronghold of Albukamal which many consider to be the terror group’s new capital following the siege (and fated fall) of Raqqa by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
As it stands, the SAA is now 120 km from the besieged city of Deir Ezzor from its southern flank, 135 km from Palmyra axis, and 115 km from the Raqqa axis in what seems to be a race by the different SAA formations to reach the desperate city in as little time as possible as ISIS hammers its resilient defenders with an offensive after the next hoping to break it before the allied troops lift the siege.
The reference to “ISIS’s stronghold of Albukamal” in the Al-Masdar report clearly refers to Abu Kamal, the town referred to by Colonel Dillon in his comments. What Colonel Dillon is saying is that the US troops in al-Tanf will not interfere with or block this advance.
As such Colonel Dillon’s words look like a public statement directed first and foremost to Moscow reiterating a message which has almost certainly been made by the US to the Russians in private, which is that the US is not going to interfere in the Syrian army’s operations to relieve the siege of the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, and will not try to block the Syrian army’s moves into central and eastern Syria because of some US plan to partition Syria. Note that Colonel Dillon specifically refers to Deir Ezzor in his comments, and specifically denies that the US is in the “land-grab business”.
The background to these comments is the Russian warning given to the US a few days ago directly following the shooting down of the Syrian SU-22 fighter near Rusafa that Russia would henceforth switch off the ‘de-confliction’ hotline with the US and would track US aircraft if they flew west of the Euphrates. This is what I said about this warning then
…….the single most important reason for the strong Russian reaction is what caused the US to shoot down the SU-22 down in the first place.
As the report from the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights shows, the real reason the SU-22 was shot down was because it was supporting a Syrian army offensive to capture the strategically important town of Rusafa from ISIS.
Rusafa lies south east of Tabqah – the main base of the US backed Kurdish militia in this area – and within striking distance of the main highway between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, the eastern desert city currently besieged by ISIS.
By capturing Rusafa the Syrian army is now in a position to intercept columns of ISIS fighters who might try to flee Raqqa for Deir Ezzor.
The Syrians and the Russians have in recent weeks complained that the US and the Kurds have been doing nothing to prevent ISIS fighters fleeing Raqqa for Deir Ezzor, and in recent days there have even been reports of movements by Kurdish militia to try to block the Syrian army’s offensive to relieve Deir Ezzor.
The shooting down of the Syrian SU-22 fighter appears to have been intended as a warning to stop the Syrian army from capturing Rusafa, so as to block the Syrian army’s attempt to relieve the pressure on Deir Ezzor.
The Russian warning to the US looks in turn to have been intended to make clear to the US that this sort of interference in the Syrian army’s operations to relieve Deir Ezzor is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
The US has heeded the Russian warning. The various statements made by the US and by various US officials today, though full of the usual bluster about the US defending itself and its allies anywhere and everywhere, in fact clearly signal that the US is backing off.
Colonel Dillon’s words are the US’s public response to the Russian warning, given by a low level official so that the extent of the extent of the US climbdown is minimised.
The Russian warning was “intended to make clear to the US that….interference in the Syrian army’s operations to relieve Deir Ezzor is unacceptable and will not be tolerated”. Colonel Dillon’s words say publicly what the US is almost certainly telling the Russians privately, that the Russian warning has been heeded, and that no further US “interference in the Syrian army’s operations to relieve Deir Ezzor” is contemplated.
My article of six days ago saying that the US was backing down following the Russian warning was – understandably enough – disputed by many people, though the evidence of what was happening was clear enough.
Colonel Dillon’s comments – which almost certainly reflect the policy of General Mattis, the US Defense Secretary who seems to be the US official now in actual charge of the Trump administration’s Syrian policy – should put the matter beyond doubt.
With the US giving the Syrian army a green light to sweep through eastern and central Syria to crush ISIS in Deir Ezzor the stage is being set for a final apocalyptic battle in eastern Syria between the Syrian army and the group. In Al-Masdar’s words
Should the Syrian Army reach Deir Ezzor, the Islamic State’s presence in Syria will be challenged. The terrorist group knows it, and will muster the bulk of its power for this apocalyptic battle that will permanently change the dynamics of the Syrian war- hopefully bringing the tortuous war to its long-awaited end.
Further into the future, it seems that following the Russian warning and the US climbdown whatever plans there still were in the US to separate eastern Syria from the rest of Syria and to set up a Sunni client state there have been abandoned.
Though there is no doubt that some people in the US remained committed to these plans (which was why the Syrian SU-22 fighter was shot down) I doubt that these plans ever had the wholehearted support of the uniformed military in the Pentagon or of the President himself. Following the Russian warning such support as there still was for these plans seems to have collapsed. As I have long made clear, I doubt they were ever viable anyway.
That does not mean that the US has abandoned its attempt to gain influence in Syria. What it means is that having given up on eastern Syria it will now focus on setting up its Kurdish client state in northern Syria instead.