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Russia has rejected claims from the United States and their Kurdish led proxy militants SDF that the Russian Aerospace Forces along with the Syrian Arab Air force targeted an SDF position in Deir ez-Zor East of the Euphrates.
Legally speaking, the entire argument it moot as Syria has declared the SDF an illegal group and therefore a legitimate target as Syria works with its legal partners to liberate Syria. Syria has said openly it will fight the SDF if necessary in the battle to liberate Syria from all illegitimate forces. Hence the notion of some sort of agreement between the SDF and Syria, tenuous as it always was, can now be confirmed as ‘fake news’ or perhaps better put, wishful speculation by pro-Kurdish elements.
However, in practical terms, it highlights the very real possibility that as ISIS continues to dwindle as a formidable military force, Syria and Kurdish militants may very likely come into increasingly intense conflicts in a ‘rush for territory’ in formerly ISIS occupied parts of what is legal Syrian territory, even as Russia seeks to prevent further clashes without directly interfering in Syrian affairs. In this sense Russia’s ability to stop such clashes is self-limiting due to Russia’s respect for the realities of international law.
As I wrote, shortly before the alleged incident involving Syria/Russia and the SDF,
“Throughout the conflict in Syria, the Syrian Arab Army and its Russian/Iranian and Hezbollah allies have tended to operate in different regions vis-a-vis the Kurdish led US proxy army known as the SDF.
Over the last year however, this has increasingly changed. As Syrian forces along with their allies continue to liberate Deir ez-Zor city which has been under ISIS occupation for the last three years, reports have surfaced indicating that a faction of the SDF is only a few short kilometres away from Syrian forces as the SDF approaches the city from the north.
With the SDF and the Syrian Arab Army now effectively competing for territory which will be inevitably re-gained from ISIS by either force, the previous unspoken agreement that the SDF would more or less have free reign east of the Euphrates, might no longer apply. In many respects this is now a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if.
As Deir ez-Zor lies just west of the Euphrates and with Syria intent on exercising its right to liberate “ever inch of Syria”, the question now is, what will the major foreign powers do to either prevent or encourage conflict between Kurdish militants and the Syrian Arab Army?
Before exploring the answers to such questions, it is necessary to understand that according to international law, only the Syrian Arab Army and its allies have any right to operate in Syria. The United States remains in Syria in contravention to international law, but because the US shows little respect for international law, it is necessary to explore the various scenarios bearing this unfortunate situation in mind.
The first major test of how the SAA and SDF would interact with one another when coming face to face on the battlefield, took place in June of 2017.
At that time, the United States illegally shot down a Syrian fighter jet which the US alleges fired on SDF positions. Syria however claims that it was firing on ISIS/Daesh positions”.
It seems that the forecast about a forthcoming conflict between Syria and her partners versus the Kurdish proxies of the United States is now official in the context of the battle against ISIS turning into a battle for longer term control of legitimate Syrian territory.
However, the specific nature of yesterday’s incident is being openly challenged by Russia which maintains a line of communication with the United States which is intended to avoid incidents between parties which do not communicate directly, in this case the Syrian Arab Army and the SDF.
The Russian Defense Ministry has released the following statement, clarifying what really happened:
“To avoid unnecessary escalation, the command of the Russian troops in Syria revealed the boundaries of the military operation in Deir ez-Zor to the American partners through the existing communication channel.
Within the framework of this operation, the fighters, armored vehicles, and objects of terrorists are being destroyed on both western and eastern banks of the Euphrates.
At the same time, the Russian Air Force makes pinpoint strikes only on reconnaissance targets confirmed by several channels in IS-controlled areas.
ver the past few days, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, Russian control and reconnaissance facilities have not identified a single combat of Islamic State terrorists with armed representatives of any ‘third force.’ Therefore, only representatives of the international coalition can answer the question as to how ‘opposition members’ or ‘military advisers of the international coalition’ managed to get to the IS-held areas in the eastern part of Deir ez-Zor without striking a blow”.
In summary, Russia has stated that the only way that SDF militants could have been wounded in the anti-ISIS strike is if such men were embedded among ISIS in what is universally accepted as ISIS occupied territory.
It has already been established that during the early days of the ongoing, slow-moving US/SDF assault on Raqqa, that SDF fighters allowed many ISIS commanders and fighters to escape towards Deir ez-Zor.
It has also been reported that the US air force has been airlifting ISIS commanders out of Deir ez-Zor via helicopter.
This all comes as the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has stated,
“We have documents showing the behavior of the Americans in Iraq and Syria. We know what the Americans did there; what they neglected and how they supported Daesh [Islamic State – IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL]”.
While putatively the SDF and ISIS are enemies and while the ISIS has never admitted directly helping ISIS, although it readily admits arming and funding groups whose strategy and ideology is identical to ISIS, including elements of al-Qaeda, it is becoming increasingly apparent from multiple sources, that the US relationship with ISIS is not as simple as the ‘non-relationship’ Washington promulgates through its public communications channels.
This could help explain why the US in Raqqa as it previously had done in Mosul, is moving so slowly against ISIS targets. By contrast Hezbollah moved rapidly against an ISIS and al-Qaeda de-facto alliances in Lebanon and Syria along with its partners are moving rapidly against ISIS in Deir ez-Zor, a city which is now vastly more well protected by ISIS than Raqqa is.
It seems that for the United States, thoughts of mission creep have taken priority over the publican stated mission itself.
The increasingly self-evident truth is that the US does not want to see any force preventing Syria from taking its country back fully defeated and this includes ISIS. As ISIS will soon be defeated in spite of this, it is becoming equally clear that the next big challenge for Syria will be fighting against a group openly aligned with the United States and this is the SDF.