How is the Battle for Deir Ezzor Impacting Russia-Iran Convergence?
Monday، November 13، 2017
Russia recently conducted military strikes on several fronts in Deir Ezzor province in eastern Syria, especially to the south in the border town of Boukamal. These strikes were conducted to retake ISIS’ last strongholds in Syria after the liberation of Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital, in mid-October by the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia. The militia, backed the US-led coalition, controls the east side of the Euphrates river in Deir Ezzor and now is in a frantic race with al-Assad’s forces to recapture Boukamal, where Russia’s use of air and naval firepower aims to settle the battle and consolidate its presence ahead of the coming political milestones in Syria.
The moves came while Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Tehran on November 1 on an official visit. Although official statements said that it was aimed at promoting military and political coordination between the two countries, Putin’s visit was in fact part of Moscow’s efforts to consolidate its goals in the comprehensive war in Syria. In this war, an obvious conflict of interests goes on between Moscow and Tehran about their influence on both the Syrian arena and al-Assad regime. Thus, the military battle for Boukamal is crucial for settling the coming political battle that will re-draw the political map of Syria. In this sense, Russia’s recent military strikes were meant to send strong messages to Iran that Russia will be the main party involved in political and security arrangements in Syria in the coming period.
While ISIS’ defeat in Raqqa is seen as the end of the terror group’s presence inside Syria, brought about by the SDF thanks to international support, the battle for Deir Ezzor on the opposite side of the river, is a battle for influence between regional and international powers involved in the Syrian conflict. That is because of the province’s strategic importance as a geopolitical middle ground between Syria’s eastern, northern and central region, and a main overland corridor between Iraq and Syria’s Badiyat Al-Sham and al-Jazira. The province is also economically important because of vast agricultural lands and sits on Syria’s biggest oil and gas reserves.
After five months of intensified fighting, the military deployment and control map in Deir Ezzor shows the regime’s forces, backed by Russian military air force, are in control of military positions such as the military airport, brought back into operation, the T2 station and the Brigade 137 military base. Moreover, two divisions of the regime’s army were deployed there along with Iranian troops and Hezbollah militants.
But on the other side of the river, the SDF took control of economic oil and gas installations such as the Conoco, Al-Omar, Tanak and Jafra fields. This indicates that Boukamal, which is the second largest urban center in Deir Ezzor province and has highly strategic importance for involved parties seeking to achieve their goals regarding the Syria-Iraq border, remains the site of their last battle.
Regardless of the feverish rivalry between international powers, and by extension, between their domestic and regional allies on the Syrian arena, the Boukamal front is poised to settle yet another level of disharmony within the Russian-led alliance. The point of contention is Iran’s plans to create a Shia-dominated crescent across Syria to the Mediterranean Sea. This rift, which started to unfold since battles broke out in the province, was evidenced by the strategies pursued by both countries
Amid their race to establish military bases in areas controlled by the Syrian regime, Moscow is not responsive to Tehran’s attempts to form Hezbollah-styled Shiite militias using Syrian Shiites. The latest such Shia militia formed by Iran was the so-called 313 Force that operates in Daraa, Syria’s southern province. Moreover, Moscow is no longer attempting to hide its discontent at Iranian-led militia’s moves on the ground in Syria.
After the battle for Deir Ezzor is settled, parties involved in the Russian-led alliance in Syria can no longer claim that there will be more confrontations with ISIS, which already lost its major strongholds. Thus, the potential scenario revolves around making arrangements about the Syria-Iraq border and not about demarcating areas of control for major powers. This would require an assessment of the views of involved parties about such arrangements, and in particular Russia’s view of Iran’s plans to establish a Shia-dominated crescent stretching from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.
That is because Russia is no longer unlikely to establish bases in Boukamal and surrounding areas, or at least consolidate its presence at military positions that enabled the Syrian regime to retake control of these areas. This possibility will block Tehran’s efforts to establish new military bases at border areas to open the way for loyal militias such as the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or Hashd al-Shaabi). The PMF hinted that it can play a role in Boukamal and other areas inside Syria claiming that this would control the Iraq-Syria border.
Undoubtedly, this scenario would require Russia to reach understandings with the United States about controlling the Iraq-Syria border, which in turn would mean that non-Russian troops will be vulnerable to attacks by US troops deployed on the other side of the border inside Iraq after ISIS fighters were forced out of the border town of al-Qaim, in Iraq's western Anbar province. Such a development can further exacerbate disagreement between Moscow and Tehran.
The possibility that such a scenario materializes is supported by another variable, which is the ongoing developments in Lebanon. Such variable can confuse Iran’s calculations for the arena in Syria, while also increase Russia’s chances in consolidating its influence as a major party to establishing security and political arrangements in Syria. It also hinges on any pressures created by the possibility of a new confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah, which means the Iran-aligned militia will be forced to withdraw to its bases in Lebanon decreasing Iran’s influence in Syria. Eventually, this possibility would lead to deep disagreements between Moscow and Tehran taking shape inside Syria after their current formal agreement failed to contain these disagreement or even reduce their potential repercussions.