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US and Russia find common ground in Syria

An SDF fighter stands guard in Syria's Deir ez-Zor province this week. Credit: Getty

September 6, 2023 - 10:00am

For American policymakers, distracted by Ukraine, the past week’s tribal uprising in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor province against the Kurdish-led AANES administration must have felt like the return of an unwelcome ghost. The war against Isis was won four years ago, with the eastern half of the province pacified by inclusion into the AANES autonomous region — yet its US-backed SDF security forces have always been barely tolerated there, viewed as ethnic outsiders by the local Arab tribes who also oppose the evangelising social liberalism central to the AANES worldview.

Split both politically and geographically by the Euphrates river, with Assad’s Damascus government holding the western bank and regional capital, and the AANES administration holding the rural eastern bank stretching to the Iraqi border, this provincial corner of Syria is hotly contested. Iran, Russia, the US and Turkey all compete for influence among the fractious and divided local Arab tribes.

The immediate spark for the fighting, the AANES administration’s arrest of their own problematic local warlord proxy, Abu Khawla, rapidly spiralled into the province’s most sustained disorder since the crushing of Isis rule in 2019. This saw the mostly ethnic Arab militiamen that the Kurds, for reasons of political delicacy, deployed to garrison the region surprised and outfought by tribal fighters.

For the Kurds, the conquest and annexation of Deir ez-Zor, far outside their ethnic and political comfort zone, was an unwelcome task carried out to win America’s approval. Rich in oil, the deeply conservative region is strikingly poor and underdeveloped, a paradox that drives much local dissatisfaction.

For the US, control of the region’s oil resources is a valuable bargaining chip in finally negotiating some form of peace deal with Assad (though the Syrian leader has so far shown no interest in pursuing it). It was for Deir ez-Zor’s Conoco oilfield, like the nearby Omari oilfield still a base for US troops in the province, that Russia’s now-famous Wagner Group made a daring and ultimately bloodily unsuccessful assault back in 2018 — an early test run by Putin to gauge America’s appetite for direct conflict. 

Yet with a final deal to formally end Syria’s mostly dormant conflict remaining elusive, America has found itself stuck in eastern Syria, almost solely to prevent a repetition of the Turkish campaign against the Kurds Trump which permitted back in 2019. Many local Arab tribal figures, reasonably, would prefer to deal with their American overlords directly, perhaps gaining a share of their own oil wealth, rather than going through the Kurdish-dominated administration they resent.

Yet the Americans are broadly content with the current situation, rebuffing tribal requests for direct dialogue with a bland statement reminding them that the SDF is America’s chosen partner, and that the disturbances should be halted.

Whatever the intrigue behind the abortive rebellion exciting Syria-watchers, America is now absorbed by more pressing matters in Europe. It is not the 2010s anymore, and intricate negotiations with Arab tribal chiefs in a distant corner of Syria are a luxury beyond Washington’s current attention span. In its response to the uprising — quietly blessing the Kurds’ quick and successful campaign to quash it — America more delicately echoed Russia’s deadly response to an attempt by Turkish-backed rebels to exploit the drama. 

For all their performative local jostling against each other in eastern Syria, the United States and Russia, deadly rivals in Ukraine, find themselves united by a desire to keep the Syria conflict frozen. While some Syrians feel their war has not yet run its course, for DC and Moscow it’s already ancient history.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Boris Feline
Boris Feline
9 months ago

America invading Syria good

Russia invading Ukraine bad

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
9 months ago

The SDF are a military occupation force of “ethnic outsiders” locals rightly want rid of; too bad the ungrateful natives “resent” their colonial administrators. Aris might long for Kurdish communist rule but even The Independent (!) has reported on their abuses and ethnic chauvinism. The muted language used to describe this violence and injustice speaks volumes.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
9 months ago

Let us bear in mind that the US occupation of eastern Syria, its theft of Syrian oil, and its environmental destruction in the region, are all breaches of international law and war crimes.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 months ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

Word on paper. Until there’s a unified world government, this is how geopolitics is conducted. War is not nice, not fair, and almost never confined to a set of rules written down in any book. Games of geopolitical power such as the one described here are just low scale warfare conducted covertly through proxies which makes it all the nastier. You can tut-tut all you want but nobody acting on the geopolitical stage is pure as driven snow. America does bad things, we get it. Most Americans who aren’t idiots already know that. There’s a reason most of us don’t trust our own government. Still as much as I don’t like the elites that run the US, I have to concede they are still at least marginally less evil than the people running China and Russia.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve Jolly
Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

America’s wealthy ruling caste is openly hostile to Americans and is currently using every ‘legal’ means to ensure they aren’t humiliated by a narcissistic, orange-hued confidence man for the second time. The voice that tells us ‘America’s not so bad as the others’ is getting ever fainter.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago

President Assad has WON, and jolly good to!

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
9 months ago

Why?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

Because the others were FAR worse.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
9 months ago

I think you are right. Who would have thought that there were worse alternatives than Saddam or the Taliban? but the neo-cons managed to find them.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

The State Department already got the US military out of Afghanistan to focus on Biden’s favoured section of Eurasia. If they want to bed in in the Ukraine and create a client buffer-state around Kiev, then these disaster-prone bureaucrats had better make sure the Russians don’t open another geopolitical front elsewhere.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

I’m not sure Russia is in any better position actually. They probably don’t want to open a second front either, which is kind of the point the author was making. Neither side wants to deal with crap like this right now as there are bigger fish to fry.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I see Biden basically as a businessman and if Ukraine is good business for American corporations then so be it. Perhaps he convinced Obama in 2014 that they could return to the question of Crimea further down the line because long-term conflict over a buffer state would be profitable to American interests.
The Syrian conflict seemed to be completely ceded to Russia because Turkey (and Iran) were available to work with the West to deal with the problem of Islamic State. Rumours were that H Clinton wanted a no-fly zone installed there to expel Assad as well as Moscow, but the powers that be envisaged a resulting nuclear escalation.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
9 months ago

Kurdistan should be a thing, but if there was a Kurdistan, the land (unjustly stolen from the Kurds) would come from 5 other countries. A tough circle to square!

Jim McDonnell
Jim McDonnell
9 months ago

I’d be willing to bet Erdogan is egging on these Arab tribal leaders. He’ll do anything to bedevil the SDF and if it makes things worse for the Arabs he couldn’t care less.