Friday, August 31, 2018

Update: Pro-Regime Forces Setting Conditions to Attack U.S. Forces in Eastern Syria

By Catherine Harris with Jennifer Cafarella and the ISW Syria Team

Key Takeaway: Russia, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are continuing to set conditions to attack the U.S. and its primary ground partner - the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - in Eastern Syria while international attention is focused on a possible pro-regime offensive in Idlib Province. Pro-regime forces are amassing in Deir ez-Zour Province and consolidating control over infrastructure that could enable future attacks across the Euphrates River. The Russo-Iranian Coalition likely intends to extract concessions from the SDF and U.S. by threatening kinetic escalation in Eastern Syria. They nonetheless remain prepared to use force if negotiations fail.

Russia and Iran have taken additional steps to set conditions for a potential offensive against the U.S. and its partners in Eastern Syria. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) previously warned in June 2018 that the Russo-Iranian Coalition is preparing to attack the U.S. and its partnered Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Pro-regime forces have taken a number of steps since June that will shorten or eliminate the operational pause required to pivot from operations in Western Syria to a main effort in Eastern Syria.
  • Russia may be preparing for cross-river operations in Deir ez-Zour Province. Russian Military Police reportedly assumed control over all frontline checkpoints and river crossings (primarily informal ferry crossings) along the Euphrates River in Deir ez-Zour Province in mid-August 2018.[1] Russia is ostensibly asserting order after increasingly violent disputes between pro-regime forces over revenue from cross-front trade with SDF-held areas. This consolidation also positions Russian Military Police for future operations against U.S. and SDF. Russia can construct temporary bridges at these river crossings to enable military movements across the Euphrates River. It has previously deployed combat engineers with bridging equipment to Deir ez-Zour Province.[2] Russia also claims that personnel from the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations are currently rebuilding infrastructure in Deir ez-Zour Province.[3] It is possible these personnel could also be used for infrastructure projects to support military operations in Eastern Syria. 
  • Russia and Iran are consolidating command-and-control structures in Eastern Syria. The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) reportedly arrested the local commander of the regime’s National Defense Forces (NDF) in Deir ez-Zour Province on August 18 after Russian Military Police detained him for several days.[4] The arrests followed several days of violent clashes between militias backed by Iran and the NDF in Deir ez-Zour Province. Russia and Iran are likely reorganizing existing local command structures to exert more effective control over pro-regime forces in Eastern Syria. Russia’s assertion of control over the river crossing likely supports this effort. This consolidation is a necessary step ahead of any upcoming combat operation against the U.S. and SDF in Eastern Syria. 
  • The Russo-Iranian Coalition also continued efforts to destabilize areas held by the SDF and U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria. Pro-regime agents reportedly distributed leaflets calling on civilians to fight U.S. and SDF personnel in Raqqa City on August 23.[5] ISW previously warned that pro-regime forces began infiltrating terrain held by the SDF as early as February 2018. Pro-regime forces are building on tribal networks to disrupt and threaten the U.S. and the SDF. 
Russia, Iran, and Assad likely still hope to compel the SDF to cut a deal and break from the U.S.
  • Assad still seeks a deal that reintegrates the SDF into the Syrian state. Negotiations between the SDF and Damascus are ongoing. Assad has previously emphasized that the regime would not hesitate to use force if these talks fail.[6] He has thus far refused to meet the terms proposed by the SDF and instead opted to escalate politically in Northern Syria. He is pressing forward with plans to extend nationwide local elections scheduled for September 16 to areas held by the SDF. The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) - the political wing of the SDF - has rejected the vote and detained multiple candidates for office across Northern Syria.[7] Assad’s political escalation has caused a stalemate in the negotiations with the SDF. The SDF and Assad also remain deadlocked over the control of key infrastructure including utilities, dams, and oil fields in Eastern Syria.[8] The SDF has asserted that it will continue to manage oil and natural gas fields in Deir ez-Zour Province until it reaches a full political settlement with Assad.[9] Assad may apply military pressure to coerce greater concessions from the SDF. 
Russia and Iran will likely prioritize their current main effort to reconquer parts of opposition-held Idlib Province in Northern Syria and later pivot to Eastern Syria. They could attempt to exploit international focus on Idlib Province to conduct deniable operations against the U.S. in Eastern Syria, however.

The U.S. has begun to block pro-regime tribal outreach but must still prepare for possible military escalation in Eastern Syria. The U.S. sent a senior delegation to meet with local tribes across SDF-held areas of Eastern Syria in late August. The delegation communicated a renewed U.S. commitment to countering both ISIS and Iran in Syria. The visit is an inflection in the level of local engagement and could indicate the U.S. has decided to retain forces in Syria. The framing of U.S. policy in Eastern Syria as anti-Iran is also an inflection and likely reflects a U.S. effort to start blocking the entrenchment of Iran in Deir ez-Zour Province.[10] This outreach is a positive first step toward consolidating gains against ISIS and blocking the ability of Iran, Russia, and Assad to coopt the SDF. The U.S. must be prepared to defend against a military escalation as well. Renewed U.S. engagement in Eastern Syria could prompt pro-regime forces to abandon their diplomatic effort and escalate militarily instead.

Looking Ahead

Pro-regime forces have reshuffled their force disposition on the western bank of the Euphrates River in Deir ez-Zour Province in areas adjacent to ongoing clearing operations by the SDF against ISIS in the area of Hajin.[11] The full scope of these deployments is unclear at the time of this writing. Further deployments of pro-regime forces along the Euphrates River Valley or Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) along the Syrian-Iraqi Border could be an indicator of an imminent attack against U.S. forces or the SDF. Multiple reported attacks against SDF-held oil infrastructure in Eastern Syria in late August could reflect probing attempts by the Russo-Iranian Coalition. The attacks may alternately be conducted by ISIS. ISW will release a refined assessment of the pro-regime force posture in the coming days.

[1] [“Russia receives river crossings in Deir al-Zour,”] Smart News-Agency, August 17, 2018, Available: https://smartnews-agency(.)com/ar/wires/317899/%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D8%AA%D8%AA%D8%B3%D9%84%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D9%87%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1 ; [“An agreement between the regime and SDF to open the crossing Salehia Deir al-Zour,”] Smart News-Agency, August 27. 2018, Available: https://smartnews-agency(.)com/ar/wires/319773/%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%A8%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%85-%D9%88-%D9%82%D8%B3%D8%AF-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D9%81%D8%AA%D8%AD-%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%A8%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1.
[2] “Russia Ships More Military Equipment To Syria,” South Front, April 13, 2018, Available: https://southfront(.)org/russia-ships-more-military-equipment-to-syria-photos/
[3] “Bulletin of the Centre for the Reception, Allocation and Accommodation of Refugees (August 21, 2018),” Russian Ministry of Defense, August 21, 2018, Available: http://eng(.)
[4] [“Mounting differences between Iranian militias and regime in Deir ez Zour, and al-Iraqiya held in Sayeda Zeinab prison,”] SNN, August 18, 2018, Available: www.shaam(.)org/news/syria-news/تصاعد-الخلافات-بين-ميليشيات-إيران-والنظام-في-دير-الزور-و-العراقية-يزج-في-سجن-السيدة-زينب.html ; “Russian police slapped an ‘Assad militia’ in Deir al-Zour,” El Dorar, August 13, 2018, Available: https://eldorar(.)com/node/124858
[5] Sound and Pic. August 23, 2018 Available: https://twitter(.)com/soundandpic/status/1032719606430019584
[6] “‘We were close to direct conflict between Russia & US inside Syria’ – Bashar Assad” Russia Today, May 31, 2018, Available: https://www.rt(.)com/news/428299-assad-syria-russia-interview/
[7] [“Riad Derar denies the formation of any joint committees with the Syrian regime”] PYD Rojava, August 12, 2018, Available: https://pydrojava(.)net/arabic/archives/38483; [“Al-Hasakah .. Arrest of candidates and the closure of private schools renew the dispute between the regime and the Democratic Union”] Zaman al Wasl, August 21, 2018. Available: https://www(.)
[8] “Kurdish Delegation Met Syrian Gov't Officials to Discuss Political Settlement,” Sputnik News, Available: July 27, 2018, Available: https://sputniknews(.)com/middleeast/201807271066741101-kurdish-damascus-political-settlement/
[9] [“President of the SDC...Yes, I met Assad in Damascus, and the fate of the oil fields was not on the table”] Zaman al Wasl, August 19, 2018, Available: https://www(.); [“Ilham Ahmed: Yes, I met Assad in Damascus and we may be part of the regime’s army if the agreement is reached”] SNN, August 19, 2018, Available: www.shaam(.)org/news/syria-news/إلهام-أحمد-التقيت-الأسد-في-دمشق-وقد-نكون-جزءاً-من-جيش-النظام-حال-الاتفاق.html; [““Within restrictions” with the President of the Executive Board of the Syrian Democratic Council, Ilham Ahmed”] BBC Arabic, August 17, 2018, Available:
[10] “US Troops Poised to 'Stay' in Syria as DoS Official Visits Kurdish-Held Areas,” Sputnik, August 26, 2018, https://sputniknews(.)com/middleeast/201808261067485266-syria-us-forces-daesh-fight/;
[11] [“Russia controls crossings in Deir ez Zour and Hama after expulsion of regime forces,”] Halab Today, August 17, 2018, Available: https://halabtodaytv(.)net/news/26527 ; [“Deir ez Zour Province is witnessing tripartite movements of ISIS, the Syrian regime, and the SDF on both sides of the Euphrates and the latter seek to defeat ISIS"] SOHR, August 21, 2018, Available: http://www.syriahr(.)com/2018/08/21/محافظة-دير-الزور-تشهد-تحركات-ثلاثية-من/