U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
CAIRO – 21 December 2017: As Russia announced last week, it will begin pulling out its forces from Syria to permanent locations. Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon stated earlier this month that U.S. forces would remain on ground to support their “partners” and “prevent the return of terrorists.”
The United States justifies its military presence in Syria on the basis of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against Al-Qaeda and other terrorists by the U.S. Congress. However, the Syrian regime considers that presence illegal resorting to the military help of Russia since 2015.
The permanent locations of Russian forces in Syria are Hmeimim Air Base in eastern Syria in Latakia governorate and Tartus naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean. Russia had helped the national Syrian army regain control over the territories west of the Euphrates River making up the majority of the Syrian lands.
On the other hand, the opposition militias and the U.S. forces are controlling the eastern parts of the country on the other side of the river. Last week, two U.S. F-22 stealth fighters intercepted two Russian aircrafts which crossed the river flying east of the "de-confliction line" separating Russian and U.S.-led coalition aircrafts operating over Syria, two U.S. defense officials told CNN.
This is not the first time, as Russian military declared that a U.S. F-22 fighter allegedly prevented on November 23 two Russian Su-25 strike aircraft from bombing an ISIS base to the west of the Euphrates River, according to Russia Today.
These encounters have been so frequent that the spokesman for U.S. Air Forces Central Command Lt. Col. Damien Pickart complained that they mounted to six and eight times daily in November on the east side of the Euphrates River despite mutual de-confliction calls, so as it has become hard to determine if these are deliberate actions or honest mistakes by the Russians.
As CNN reported, Pickart said that these unsafe encounters occur over the Middle Euphrates River Valley between the Syrian town of Mayadin and the Iraqi border, “where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Iraqi government troops are fighting the remnants of ISIS.” SDF is dominated by Syrian Kurds of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Mayadin is located in Deir Al Zor governorate which was liberated from ISIS mainly by the Syrian National Army backed by Russia.
By contrast, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov accused the U.S. forces of attempting to hamper the destruction of ISIS strongholds in the Euphrates valley, where most aircraft encounters occur. Since 2015, Russia has deployed 4,000 military personnel in Syria, while the U.S. has 2,000 troops. A troop may have as many as 250 soldiers.
As the Syrian government perceives the presence of U.S. forces as an occupation and considers rebels as terrorists and traitors, they would manage to terminate their existence mainly by military force. As it does not possess that force, would Russia help the Syrian government expel U.S. forces from Syrian territory?
On one hand, the attempts by Russian jets to enter the areas controlled by the U.S. and its allies are critical. On the other hand, the risk of igniting a war with the U.S. as a result is alarming.
Mohamed Farrag Abou El Nour, a writer, political analyst and expert in Russian affairs, said that the Syrian regime is a legitimate one, having the right to call for any state to help in fighting terrorism in the country. He explained that, according to international law, only Syrian people determine the legitimacy of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
FILE – Writer, political analyst and expert in international affairs Mohamed Farrag Abou El Nour
Abou El Nour added that the presence of the U.S. in Syria stems from its military power, unlike Russia, whose intervention was requested by the regime. He added that the U.S.’ role in Syria is a “negative one as it inhibits Russian jets from striking ISIS militants’ camps.”
Abou El Nour commented that the situation would not reach a direct military confrontation, clarifying that both powers are just threatening each other without real intent for a war. However, he warned that a mistake by one of the pilots can make the situation slip out of control.
The expert speculates that the U.S.’ military presence would not last for long, as Russia has a stiff stance over Syria. The acceptance of Assad in the rule has become more widespread among the international community, he added.
Abou El Nour highlighted that the territories at Al-Hasakah governorate located in northeastern Syria with a Kurdish majority are divided between the SDF backed by the U.S., the Syrian national army backed by Russia and IS militants. He added that Syrian forces are growing stronger in Deir Al Zor, Al-Hasakah, and on the borders with Iraq.
Syria map – Wikimedia Commons
Furthermore, the expert estimates that the Kurdish forces comprising the majority in the SDF backed by the U.S. would sooner or later ally with the Syrian regime as it is regaining further control over the majority of territories in eastern Syria.
In addition, Turkey has been cutting the geographic connection between eastern and western Kurdistan. It occupied Idlib city in northwestern Syria and imposed a siege over Afrin. Kurds in Syria would take into consideration the failure of Iraqi Kurdistan to achieve independence as well, since both Syrian and Iraqi regimes are close to each other so the same scenario could be repeated with the Kurds in Syria.
Abou El Nour said that U.S. forces, which are concentrated in Kurdish areas and in the Syrian crossing border with Iraq and Jordan al-Tanf, would not find any social or political back up to sustain their existence in Syria. Also, Syria has a big number of Shiite militias that would clash with any remaining troops.
The expert concluded that the U.S. would strategically fail in Syria. “The U.S. is a superpower, but not in this region… it is facing a compatible power like Russia,” Abou El Nour stipulated.