Author: Kenan ROVSHANOGLU
On April 22, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia and Iran held a video conference as part of the Astana process of the settlement of the Syrian conflict. In a statement following the meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the parties discussed recent developments in Syria, including the situation around Idlib and on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, the process of political settlement of the conflict, as well as the humanitarian situation and issues related to the return of refugees. The participants also discussed the situation with the coronavirus pandemic.
Following the agreement on a ceasefire in Idlib reached between the presidents of Turkey and Russia on March 5 in Moscow, and the declaration of pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, military operations in Syria virtually ceased. In general, the situation is stable, except for some terrorist acts and minor clashes between the conflicting parties. Last month saw the lowest number of casualties during nine years of conflict in Syria.
Currently, the situation in Idlib is stable, although in February it was almost out of control and could lead to a war between Russia and Turkey. Now the Turkish and Russian military periodically patrol the territory along the M-4 highway, which connects the Syrian cities of Latakia and Aleppo and stretches right up to the border with Iraq. An exception is the rare skirmishes between local radical groups and the military police of Turkey and Russia.
That is why, the focus is currently on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, which is under the control of Kurdish armed forces. In fact, had it not been for the pandemic, it was expected that the next stage of military operations (after the ceasefire in Idlib) will take place on this territory. According to Kurdish media reports, Turkey allegedly concentrates its military forces in the northern regions of Syria, near the checkpoints controlled by Kurds, and is preparing for a new operation. Although official Ankara prefers to remain silent for now, tensions in the province of Deir ez-Zor, with a predominantly Kurdish population, are growing every day.
On April 20, Syria's official news agency SANA reported that a US patrol convoy was attacked by unidentified individuals near the village of Ruvaishid, Hasaka province. The military escort car was destroyed with several servicemen injured. A similar incident occurred two weeks ago, on April 6, again near the borders of Hasaka province. This time, unknown armed men attacked a joint convoy of the US army and the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), killing one American officer and two SDF fighters.
Apparently, the severity of the regional situation is obvious, given that in addition to the SDF and the US Army, this Kurdish territory, especially in Deir ez-Zor, is also controlled by the Syrian army and pro-government militias, Russian troops, Iranian army and related militias, as well as Hezbollah, the Turkish army in the north, armed fighters of the opposition Syrian national army and, finally, ISIS and other radical groups.
Why is Deir ez-Zor so attractive?
The region, which covers just over 25% of the territory of Syria, is also known as the eastern bank of the Euphrates. Administratively, this includes the areas of the regions of Hasaka, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.
The Kurds, who control most of these three provinces, in 2015 formed an unofficial administrative unit with Kurdish self-government, the so-called Rozhova province, which included the Afrin region in the north-west of the country. However, in 2018, as a result of Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish army took Afrin away from the Kurdish forces. After that, the latter continued to manage a small enclave north of Aleppo, as well as in Manbij west of the Euphrates and in the three above-mentioned provinces. Last October, as part of Operation Peace Spring, the Turkish army cleared the area between the cities of Ra’s al Ain and Tell Abyad on the border with Turkey from the Kurds. In addition, unable to resist the Turkish offensive, Kurdish forces were forced to let in the parts of the Syrian army in the areas of Raqqa, Qamyshly, Ain al-Isa and Manbij.
However, most of the territory east of the Euphrates is still controlled by Kurds from SDF. The US military units are also deployed here. Joint patrols of the Russian and Syrian armies monitor the situation in Manbij and the western regions. In the Abu Kamal region south of Deir ez-Zor, Shiite militias from Iran and Hezbollah are based. The area is periodically bombarded by the USAF, as well as Israeli and Saudi Arabian fighter jets. By the way, the main land route connecting Syria with Iraq also passes through this territory.
There are reasons why the Kurdish region, in particular Deir ez-Zor, attracts the attention of major world powers. This is a strategic location with affluent oil and gas resources and, finally, known for its ethnic and political background.
Let's start with the last one. The territory is predominantly populated by Kurds, who formed their own armed forces after the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, becoming the actual owner and power in the region. After 2014, the Kurds became allies of the Western (American) coalition against ISIS, gaining serious trust and support from Washington. However, some countries of the region, including Turkey, Iraq and Syria, consider the strengthening of the Kurds with a subsequent opportunity to obtain political status in Syria undesirable. The Kurds consider the current situation a historic chance to establish a second (after Iraq) Kurdish autonomy in the region.
Although last year the Turkish army was able to partially push the Kurds away from its borders as part of Operation Peace Spring, it has not yet fully achieved its goal and will sooner or later continue to clear its borders of Kurdish forces. At least this is the position of the current Turkish authorities.
Secondly, most of the oil and gas in Syria is produced in this area. In fact, the oil reserves and production in Syria has always been significantly less than those of other countries in the Middle East. Before the conflict, the maximum oil production in Syria did not exceed 400,000 bpd, while at present, production has completely fallen to 28,000 bpd. This small volume throughout the country is quite impressive for a small Kurdish autonomy. Moreover, theoretically, production can be raised, at least, to the pre-conflict level.
By the way, in February 2018, the mercenaries of PMC Wagner wanted to seize the gas processing plant in Deir ez-Zor, but suffered heavy losses as a result of retaliatory fire by the US military.
Finally, the third important reason that makes this region attractive is its strategic location. The region is located on the border with Iraq. The main highway connecting Syria and Iraq also passes through this province. That is why this road is so important for Iran, the USA and Israel. Especially for Iran, which is arming its loyal groups in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine through this land corridor. This is the reason for the periodic bombing of Iranian groups in Deir ez-Zor by Israeli and American military aircraft.
Obviously, the eastern bank of the Euphrates is a tidbit for many interested parties. And it seems that negotiations between them have already begun. According to media reports, negotiations are currently underway and a secret agreement has been concluded between Turkey and Russia regarding the eastern bank of the Euphrates. According to Kurdish websites, Turkey and Russia secretly agreed to conduct a military operation in Deir ez-Zor. In accordance with the agreement, Moscow gives the go-ahead for the operation of the Turkish army in exchange for the full access to the M-4 highway and the transfer of control over the southern part of the road to the Syrian army.
For obvious reasons, Russian troops do not want to go to an open confrontation with the US. Two years ago it was clear that the US did not intend to make concessions. This gives reason to assume that Moscow can nevertheless approve the Turkish military operation. Ankara has repeatedly demanded that Washington recognize the strategic importance of the northern regions of Syria for Turkey. So, after Erdogan’s meeting with Trump, the US withdrew its troops from the region, creating the conditions for Operation Peace Spring. After this operation, American troops moved slightly south, and part of the border areas came under the control of the Turkish army and allied opposition forces.
Turkey is now considering expanding its presence in the above territory and ousting the Kurds from there. This operation is also beneficial to Russia, which, like last time, can send troops into the Kurdish region. In other words, if Russia and Turkey reach an agreement, they will both benefit from it.
The US has a broader interest in Deir ez-Zor. Washington does not want to lose control of the border zone and oil fields, although it admitted that it was not interested in the “insignificant amount” of Syrian oil. In October last year, the US military relocated from north to south - in the oil and border areas of Deir ez-Zor. It is for these two reasons that the withdrawal of US forces from the region seems unrealistic.
However, last year President Trump made an unexpected decision to relocate the US troops during the Operation Peace Spring, which showed that the Kurdish question and the fate of northern Syria were not priority items for the current host of the White House. But he can change his mind at any time. On the other hand, President Trump does not see any reason for continuing military operations in Syria, which cost $20 billion, because they do not promise significant profits in the foreseeable future. Therefore, Trump can agree with Turkey and Russia in order to limit their actions within a certain framework.
The main conditions on which the US will insist in negotiations with Turks and Russians are the preservation of the Kurdish military-political presence, at least in the south of the region, and the prevention of the use of territory by Iran. In the last paragraph, the interests of Turkey and Russia coincide with those of the United States. In general, the strengthening of Iran in Syria does not suit either Russia or Turkey.
Tensions between Turkey and Iran in Syria were first openly observed during Operation Peace Spring last year. There were clashes between forces supported by Iran and the Turkish army. A similar situation arose during the battles for Idlib. As a result, forces loyal to Iran presented an ultimatum to Turkey. Russia is also not interested in strengthening Iran in Syria, although the ground operations in Syria are mainly carried out by Iranian field forces.
It seems that the process of determining the fate of the last "uncontrolled" region of Syria has already been launched. After an agreement on Idlib, the eastern bank of the Euphrates remains the last region to be agreed between the parties. However, weakening the role of Iran in Syria is not an easy task, since Tehran has serious military support there. Also, Iranian diplomacy has experience in overcoming such situations. Therefore, it is too early to say that the fate of Deir ez-Zor has already been decided, although it is already clear that the region remains the last unresolved stage of the Syrian conflict, for which many more are ready to fight.