On February 7, the US B-52 bombers and Apache helicopters struck a contingent of Syrian government troops and allied forces in Deir al-Zor that reportedly killed and wounded dozens of Russian military contractors working for the Russian private security firm, the Wagner group.
In order to understand the reason why the US brazenly attacked the Russian contractors, we need to keep the backdrop of seven-year-long Syrian conflict in mind. Washington has failed to topple the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
After the Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015, the momentum of battle has shifted in favor of Syrian government and Washington’s proxies are on the receiving end in the conflict. Washington’s policy of nurturing militants against the Syrian government has given birth to the Islamic State and myriads of jihadist groups that have carried out audacious terror attacks in Europe during the last couple of years.
Out of necessity, Washington had to make the Kurds the centerpiece of its policy in Syria. But on January 20, its NATO-ally Turkey mounted Operation Olive Branch against the Kurds in the northwestern Syrian canton of Afrin. In order to save its reputation as a global power, Washington could have confronted Turkey and pressured it to desist from invading Afrin. But it chose the easier path and vented its frustration on the Syrian government forces in Deir al-Zor which led to the casualties of scores of Russian military contractors hired by the Syrian government.
Another reason why Washington struck Russian contractors working in Syria is that the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – which is mainly comprised of Kurdish YPG militias – have reportedly handed over the control of some areas west of Euphrates River to Deir al-Zor Military Council (DMC), which is the Arab-led component of SDF, and have relocated several battalions of Kurdish YPG militias to Afrin and along Syria’s northern border with Turkey in order to defend the Kurdish-held areas against the onslaught of Turkish armed forces and allied Free Syria Army (FSA) militias.
More significantly, an understanding between the Syrian government and the Kurdish leadership has recently been reached, according to which the government will deploy Syrian troops in the northwestern Kurdish enclave of Afrin in order to augment the defenses of the canton against the Turkish-led offensive.
One of the main reasons why Washington bombed the pro-government forces, which included the Russian military contractors, on February 7 in Deir al-Zor was to preempt the likelihood of such an accord between the US-backed Kurdish forces and the Russia-backed Syrian government from materializing in the wake of Turkish-led Operation Olive Branch in Afrin on January 20.
It’s worth noting here that the ethnic and sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq is actually a three-way conflict between the Sunni Arabs, the Shi’a Arabs and the Kurds. Although after the declaration of war against a faction of Sunni Arab militants, the Islamic State, the US has also lent its support to the Shi’a-led government in Iraq, the Shi’a Arabs of Iraq are not the trustworthy allies of Washington because they are under the influence of Iran.
Therefore, Washington was left with no other choice but to make the Kurds the centerpiece of its policy in Syria after a group of Sunni Arab jihadists overstepped their mandate in Syria and overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in early 2014, from where the United States had withdrawn its troops only a couple of years ago in December 2011.
The so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are nothing more than Kurdish militias with a token presence of mercenary Arab tribesmen in order to make them appear more representative and inclusive in outlook.
Regarding the Kurdish factor in the Syrian civil war, it would be pertinent to mention here that unlike the pro-US Iraqi Kurds led by the Barzani family, the Syrian PYD/YPG Kurds as well as the Syrian government have been ideologically aligned because both are socialists and have traditionally been in the Russian sphere of influence.
Moreover, as I have already described that the Syrian civil war is a three-way conflict between the Sunni Arab militants, the Shi’a-led government and the Syrian Kurds, and the net beneficiaries of this conflict have been the Syrian Kurds who have expanded their areas of control by aligning themselves first with the Syrian government against the Sunni Arab militants since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in August 2011 to August 2014, when the US policy in Syria was “regime change” and the CIA was indiscriminately training and arming the Sunni Arab militants against the Shi’a-led government in the border regions of Turkey and Jordan with the help of Washington’s regional allies: Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, all of which belong to the Sunni denomination.
In August 2014, however, the US declared a war against one faction of the Sunni Arab militants, the Islamic State, when the latter overran Mosul and Anbar in early 2014, and Washington made a volte-face on its previous “regime change” policy and started conducting air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Thus, shifting the goalposts in Syria from the impossible objective of “regime change” to the realizable goal of defeating the Islamic State.
After that reversal of policy by Washington, the Syrian Kurds took advantage of the opportunity and struck an alliance with the US against the Islamic State at Masoud Barzani’s bidding, thus further buttressing their position against the Sunni Arab militants as well as the Syrian government.
More to the point, for the first three years of the Syrian civil war from August 2011 to August 2014, an informal pact existed between the Syrian government and the Syrian Kurds against the onslaught of the Sunni Arab militants until the Kurds broke off that arrangement to become the centerpiece of Washington’s policy in the region.
In accordance with the aforementioned pact, the Syrian government informally acknowledged Kurdish autonomy; and in return, the Kurdish militias jointly defended the areas in northeastern Syria, specifically al-Hasakah, alongside the Syrian government troops against the advancing Sunni Arab militant groups, particularly the Islamic State.
Finally, in order to understand Washington’s objective that why it dared to bomb pro-government forces in Deir al-Zor on February 7 that included private Russian military contractors, bear in mind that it would be a nightmare scenario for Washington in Syria if its only trust-worthy allies, the Syrian Kurds, broke off their arrangement with Washington and once again entered a mutually beneficial alliance with Russia-backed Syrian government – a scenario which is quite likely after Washington’s NATO-ally Turkey’s repeated invasions of Kurdish-held areas in Syria, first the invasion of Jarabulus and Azaz in northern Syria during the Operation Euphrates Shield that lasted from August 2016 to last March, and now the military intervention in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin on January 20.
Washington’s primary objective of bombing the pro-government troops on February 7 that led to dozens of Russian casualties was to create divisions between the US-backed Kurds and Russia-backed Syrian government. Clearly, one can’t negotiate and reach a defensive accord with a party whose backers are bombing you at the same time. But Russia has sagaciously downplayed the brazen atrocity and moved on with its efforts to reconcile the divergent interests of competing forces in the Syrian proxy war.
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petro-imperialism.