New battles emerge out of post-ISIS Syria

The civil war entering its seventh year-contains actors competing for power.

Matt Saintsing
February 27, 2018 - 3:50 pm

Photo by Xinhua/Sipa USA

A top U.S. general warned lawmakers that Russia is seeking to undermine U.S. efforts in Syria at the same time it’s asserting itself as a key arbiter in the civil war, now entering its seventh year.

“I’m being very serious when I say they play the role of both arsonist and fireman — fueling tensions and then trying to resolve them in their favor,” Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

And therein lies the paradox: The reality on the ground is that Russia has to be a part of any solution in Syria, but they’re fixated on stacking the deck in their favor. And, it’s working.

Russia, along with Iran, continues to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. And as the battle against ISIS in Syria seems to be tempering down, new battles are emerging.

Syria is increasingly becoming a battlefield for outside parties with competing interests. All of the following have occured in the span of about a month: Israel and Hezbollah (backed by Iran) have engaged in recent violence on both sides of Syria’s southern border; Turkey is sparring with Kurdish fighters to the north, many of which are American-trained and have had huge successes against ISIS; and the biggest player, Russia, is also using Syria as their proving ground.

Votel said Russia is using the conflict to try out new weapons and tactics, “often with little regard for collateral damage or civilian casualties.” Votel also stressed that an increase in Russian surface-to-air missiles in the region “threatens our access and ability to dominate the airspace.”

Standing at the crux is the issue of strategic preponderance.

With the revelation that the recent attack on U.S. forces in eastern Syria may have been directed from the highest echelon at the Kremlin, it is becoming increasingly clear that Russia wants to push the U.S. into withdrawing from Syria once the Islamic State is crushed.

On Feb. 7, pro-Syrian regime forces approached American positions in Deir ez-Zor and launched an attack on the Syrian Democratic Forces, a key U.S. partner. The U.S. responded by striking the pro-regime forces.

The ever-twisting episode was even further complicated by reports that Russian mercenaries had taken part in the attack and were among the dead.

This is nothing short of the deadliest U.S.-Russian clash to have taken place since the Cold War. In essence, two nuclear powers are vying for control in Syria. While the U.S. has a stated goal of crushing ISIS, it’ll have a harder time justifying its actions in the post-ISIS months, or years to come.

It is evident that superior American firepower and tactics won that round earlier this month, but the U.S. should be weary of another direct military challenge. Not because the U.S military can’t handle the heat, they clearly can. But, the risk of escalating a conflict with another nuclear power pales in comparisson to the merky strategic goals the U.S. has set (aside from destroying ISIS). 

To make matters even more complex, Russian military operations in Syria have overlapped at times with the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. Any military cooperation between the two powers is strictly limited to de-conflicting Syrian airspace that’s become increasingly congested and contested.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee told reporters Tuesday, “I do think that we ought to be alert for the potential that Russia uses some sort of mercenary forces as a way to camouflage their activities, not only in Syria, but we may well see it in other places.”