Mistrust Deepens as US and Russia Spar at Ever Closer Quarters in SE Syria
Mistrust between Moscow and Washington is deepening, as the two powers struggle to control the forces they sponsor and their rival bids for domination of southern Syria. Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin each suspect the other of trying to pull a fast one on him.
This atmosphere of suspicion thickened with the elevation this week of Saudi King Salman’s 31-year old son and strongman, Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Salman, to Crown Prince and heir to the throne.
A friend of Trump, the young prince is also a hawkish proponent of the ouster of Syrian ruler Bashar Assad and holds strong views on the Iranian peril and Iraq. It is believed in some Washington and Middle East circles, that the US President is taking guidance in his actions on Syria and the wider region from Crown Prince Mohammed, rather than from his own Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Putin needs therefore take a hard look at his Syrian policy and calculate the effect of this new element, which may be powerful enough to upend his plans for expanded influence in Syria and Iraq.
On the face of it, the Russians are keeping their secretive dialogue with Trump administration officials going in Amman. At the same time, the Russian ruler continues to quietly back the drive of his allies, the pro-Iranian Shiite militias, Hizballah and the Syrian army, to grab control of the Syrian-Iraqi border region and push the American special forces stationed there out.
The quiet sparring between Moscow and Washington broke out into the open when the US shot down a Syrian fighter jet on June 18 and downed an armed Iranian drone over eastern Syria the next day.
Moscow was furious. The Russian defense ministry announced that, henceforth, “All US-led coalition planes in the air over Syria west of the Euphrates would be treated as targets” and, moreover, communications with the US for preventing air incidents were halted.
That ominous sounding warning did not change much in the field, but it acted as a timely reminder of the quiet deal which Washington struck with Moscow on Sept. 15, 2015, dividing Syria into two spheres of influence: The area west of the Euphrates River went to the Russians and was off-limits to the Americans, while the area east of the river was allotted to the US and closed to the Russians.
Barack Obama struck that deal with Putin and Moscow is holding to it.
Sunday, June 18, Iran sought to hoist itself up to big power status by shooting ballistic missiles over Iraqi into eastern Syria. Instead of hitting ISIS targets, the missiles went wildly off-course (as itemized in a separate article). Had those missiles reached their destination, the Islamic Republic would have claimed equal status in the power stakes with the US and Russia. But they missed, and the Iranians will have to be satisfied with their subsidiary role in Syria under Russian patronage.
LAST MINUTE ALERT: A new Russian base is under construction in southeastern Syria at a small village called Khirbet Ras Al-Wa’r in the Bir al-Qasab district (see map.). It is the first new facility to be established in Syria since Moscow’s initial military intervention in September 2015, and brings the Russian foothold to its most easterly point in Syria. It also provides Moscow with a handle for controlling the volatile region where American-backed and Iranian-backed forces are bidding for dominance.