Wagner is the name of the Russian security company that recruits and employs hundreds of Russians, Ukrainians and others to do combat in Syria. Wagner is subordinate to the Russian Defense Ministry, from which it gets its missions and funding. It’s the Russian counterpart of the American security company Blackwater Security Consulting, which was notorious for its illegal activities in Iraq.
Its primary activities focus on Deir al-Zur, which was cleansed of the Islamic State and has turned into a confrontation zone between the Syrian regime, the Russian forces, the Kurdish militias and the “American advisers.” On February 7 it seemed as if this secondary arena might ignite a real war between the United States and the Syrian military, and broaden into a battle between Moscow and Washington.
Cannons and tanks operated by the Syrian military and the Wagner mercenaries heavily bombarded the Kurdish militia headquarters near Deir al-Zur with the aim of seizing control of parts of the city and bringing it under the Syrian regime’s control. The Americans responded with heavy aerial bombardments and at the end of the day’s battles there were at least 200 dead (with some estimating it at 300), and several hundred wounded, among them many Russians and Ukrainians. Syrian forces quickly fled the area; Russia vehemently condemned the “illegal” American action, Syrian President Bashar Assad described it as a war crime and the Kurdish militias, as expected, welcomed the counterattack. But a country-to-country war was avoided.
The United States is seemingly operating in Deir al-Zur in the framework of its mission to eliminate ISIS, and as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a speech at Stanford University, its forces will continue to remain in Syria to “assure that ISIS doesn’t reappear.” But Tillerson didn’t set a time frame and a few weeks ago, senior Washington officials said the United States plans to remain in Syria until there is a diplomatic solution to the crisis there. ISIS, from this perspective, is no longer the force that is driving American policy in Syria, after both the Iraqi prime minister and the U.S. administration “officially” announced that the group had been defeated in Iraq and Syria.
So it isn’t clear what the reason was for the massive American attack on the Syrian forces and their Russian accomplices, especially since the U.S. position supporting a united Syria under one regime is still in force. Moreover, there are at least some Democratic members of Congress who believe that an attack on Syrian forces requires congressional approval, and there are those among them threatening constitutional steps to prevent the expansion of the American war in Syria. All this stems from what is apparently a new strategy being formulated by the American administration on the fly, which aims to stop Iranian entrenchment in Syria while thwarting Russia’s efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution, even though the United States isn’t offering an alternative.
Washington has adopted the threat of a “Shi’ite crescent” that would link Tehran to Damascus through Iraq as strategic grounds for its activities along the border between Iraq and Syria, after it turned out that it had no way of influencing the deployment of Iranian forces in southern Syria, on the Golan Heights and in the Idlib area. But the Deir al-Zur region isn’t just a geographic barrier, control of which could block Iranian territorial contiguity; it’s an area rich in oil that the Assad regime needs to finance itself.
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Iran is also eyeing the region, seeing it as a potential arena for making back a large part of its huge financial investment in Syria. Just a few days ago, Yahya Rahim Savafi, the military adviser of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, made it clear that Syria will be expected to pay its debts to Iran and that “Syria has oil, gas and phosphate mines that could be used to repay the debt.”
Savafi’s remarks, made at a conference held by the Institute for Future Research in the Muslim World, reflect the mood of the Iranian leadership, which believes the next diplomatic battle will be for the financial control of Syria’s resources, and that Iran is seeking to come to long-term agreements like the ones signed between Damascus and Moscow over oil production franchises and the construction of a port and military bases, which Savafi mentioned specifically. It isn’t clear what is in all the agreements Syria has signed with Moscow and whether the oil fields at Deir al-Zur are included in them, but there is no doubt that the competition between Iran and Russia over the financial spoils of the war are to a large measure driving the military conduct in Syria.
On the other hand, the United States has no economic interests in Syria and certainly no economic strategy there. Nor is it an active partner in the diplomatic process being conducted exclusively by Russia, together with Iran and Turkey. The United States could still try to disrupt the Russian moves, to delay the Syrian army’s takeover of the areas that had been in ISIS’ control in the eastern part of the country and continue to threaten Iran with sanctions liable to collapse the nuclear agreement. But this can’t be considered a diplomatic strategy with clear goals.
Moreover, even to implement a policy of containment against Iran and Russia, the United States will need the Kurdish forces to serve as ground forces to physically prevent the entrenchment of Syrian, Russian or Iranian forces in the eastern border region. But this close cooperation between the Americans and the Kurds, and even the sharp warnings U.S. President Donald Trump delivered to Turkey, hasn’t succeeded in preventing or even blocking the continued Turkish incursion into Afrin, which is still controlled by the Kurds. Nor are the Kurds sure of how much they can rely on Trump anymore given the discussions Tillerson had last week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding coordination of military moves in Syria.
At the same time, Syrian opposition elements are reporting an agreement achieved between the Kurds and the Assad regime that would give him control of Afrin to stop the continued Turkish operation in the city and district. Such a move, if it indeed transpires, will take from Washington its most important source of leverage in Syria. And if Trump decides to “punish” the Kurds and deny them the funding that his administration is giving them, Russia would be happy to step in, since even now it regards the Kurds as desirable partners to the diplomatic process.
It seems like the continued American presence in Syria is turning into a hollow spectacle of prestige without a viable purpose, one that’s waiting for Trump to recognize his failure to profit diplomatically in Syria.