Bashar al-Assad
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M K Bhadrakumar |

The Syrian government forces have broken through the ISIS’ 3-year long siege of the air base in the eastern city of Dier Ezzor. The dramatic developments in the weekend signify for all purposes the end of the conflict in Syria. The capture of the city itself is now a foregone conclusion and with that ISIS becomes a spent force in Syria.

There are reports that the rebel forces supported by the US Special Forces (with air cover) are making a dash from northern Syria to take a piece of Dier Ezzor, leaving behind the unfinished business of capturing Raqqa, ISIS’ “capital”.

The covert US operation to evacuate by helicopter the ISIS commanders in Dier Ezzor last week suggests that the Pentagon accepts that the ISIS saga is ending in Syria, finally. Presumably, the ISIS and its “advisors” will now be reassigned to new theatres – such as Afghanistan. The lingering question will be: Is the US winding up business in Syria? A Russian commentary seems to think so.

Read more: Restoration of peaceful life in Syria

On the other hand, there are reports that the rebel forces supported by the US Special Forces (with air cover) are making a dash from northern Syria to take a piece of Dier Ezzor, leaving behind the unfinished business of capturing Raqqa, ISIS’ “capital”. This risks a potential flashpoint involving them and the Russia-supported government forces in a struggle for supremacy in eastern Syria. (Reuters)

At stake are two things – one, seizure of the vast oil fields that lie to the east and north of Dier Ezzor that are the jewel in the crown of the Syrian economy; two, control of the Syrian-Iraqi border along the Euphrates and down south across which a “land bridge” could potentially connect Damascus with Tehran via Baghdad. Thus, both in economic terms as well as for geopolitical reasons, the US (encouraged by Israel) is racing against time in the final phase of the conflict to establish a military presence in the eastern and south-eastern regions of Syria.

We (Israel) live in a world where we cannot operate alone not just because we have no expeditionary forces in Israel… And while we can achieve a decisive victory over Hezbollah… and while we can defeat any Shia militia in Syria … we cannot fight Iran alone…  So, all right, they could affect us, we could affect them. But it’s all about attrition… If you want to gain something which is deeper, we cannot do it alone. And this is a fact of life. It’s better to admit that. We need to know our limitations.

The geopolitical reasons are three-fold:

a) The US would seek a “say” in any Syrian settlement;

b) The US hopes to challenge Iran’s cascading influence in Syria and Lebanon; and,

c) The US feels obliged to be a provider of security for Israel. All three factors are inter-connected. The point is, as a report in the Times of Israel underscores, Israel understands its limitations in taking on Iran militarily on own steam. Gen. Yair Golan, former deputy chief of staff in the Israeli military has been quoted as saying in a stunning speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last Thursday,

Read more: Should anyone believe U.S. State Department promises on Syria?

  • We (Israel) live in a world where we cannot operate alone not just because we have no expeditionary forces in Israel… And while we can achieve a decisive victory over Hezbollah… and while we can defeat any Shia militia in Syria … we cannot fight Iran alone…  So, all right, they could affect us, we could affect them. But it’s all about attrition… If you want to gain something which is deeper, we cannot do it alone. And this is a fact of life. It’s better to admit that. We need to know our limitations.

continued US alliance with the Syria Kurdish militia can only lead to the eventual consolidation of a Kurdistan in northern Syria, which Ankara abhors. But on the other hand, Turkey takes care not to collide with the US in Syria.

Suffice to say, Israel will not allow the Trump administration to countenance a total US troop withdrawal from Syria. Put differently, some sort of US presence along the eastern banks of the Euphrates is on the cards on Israel’s insistence. Read an opinion piece titled Trump’s Big Decision in Syria by David Ignatius in the Washington Post last week on the debate in Washington.

Will Russia accept such an outcome? Arguably, it may suit Russia if the US is present in the region in some token form, necessitating, in turn, some sort of continued engagement with Russia, which has always been Moscow’s strategic priority. What about Turkey?

Read more: Plot thickens in great game over post-ISIS Iraq and Syria

Indeed, continued US alliance with the Syria Kurdish militia can only lead to the eventual consolidation of a Kurdistan in northern Syria, which Ankara abhors. But on the other hand, Turkey takes care not to collide with the US in Syria. Equally, Iran’s approach also may not be to simply “sidestep” the token American presence of a few hundred soldiers from the Special Forces and concentrate instead on the serious business of expanding its regional influence in Syria and Lebanon. Indeed, the US is unlikely to directly challenge Russia or Iran in eastern Syria, either.

In the final analysis, therefore, at some point wisdom will dawn on the Pentagon that it is foolhardy to dream about carving out a “zone of influence” within Syria. With Saudi Arabia and Qatar closing shop in Syria and Jordan coming to terms with the Syrian regime, the US is finding that it is pretty much alone in that desolate region in the middle of nowhere. 

What matters will be the new facts on the ground. The Syrian government forces (backed by Iranian and Hezbollah militia and Russian air power) have an edge over the US-led thrust from the north of Dier Ezzor. The highway connecting Damascus with Dier Ezzor is open for the first time in years. The Syrian forces are occupying the strategic heights in the region. On the contrary, the US has no reliable local ally other than the Syrian Kurdish militia, who from now onward will be fighting in regions inhabited by Sunni Arab tribes that are even further beyond the borders of their traditional homeland in northern Syria.

Read more: Iranian-Syrian World Cup qualifier ripples far beyond the pitch

In the final analysis, therefore, at some point wisdom will dawn on the Pentagon that it is foolhardy to dream about carving out a “zone of influence” within Syria. With Saudi Arabia and Qatar closing shop in Syria and Jordan coming to terms with the Syrian regime, the US is finding that it is pretty much alone in that desolate region in the middle of nowhere. Some Iranian reports suggest that even the British bulldog is pulling out.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”.

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