Northeast Syria Isn’t Big Enough for Russia and the US – And the Entry of an American Oil Company Doesn’t Help

Neil Hauer

AFP photo: Delil Souleiman

Across most of Syria, the active zones of opposing outside powers are largely clear. In regime-held territory in the country’s center, west and south, Bashar Al Assad’s allies of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah predominate. The northwest is the remit of Turkey, where it operates in support of its local Syrian opposition proxies. The bubble around Al-Tanf crossing on Syria’s border with Iraq is the exclusive province of American military forces and their international allies.

The one region that fails to adhere to these divisions is the country’s northeast. From Manbij in the west across to Hasakah and the Iraqi border in the east, the primary local players are the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). From 2015 to 2019, US forces operated here alongside them, establishing bases and even an airstrip as part of their anti-ISIS intervention. Last year, however, saw this dynamic upended: the joint shocks of a seemingly imminent Turkish incursion along with the sudden announcement of a US pullout led the Syrian Kurds to invite Russian and Syrian regime forces to enter the area as they cast about for any potential allies that might deter Ankara.

In the end, American forces remained, albeit in lesser numbers; but so, too, did the new arrivals. And then, to complicate matters further, an American oil company suddenly appeared among them.

This year has seen a tense coexistence between American and Russian forces. Early in the year, there were numerous instances of US patrols attempting to restrict the mobility of their Russian counterparts. Several times, US forces stopped Russian patrols, leading to standoffs. In at least one instance, Syrian regime forces, subjected to similar treatment, actually opened fire on US troops, leading to deaths when the Americans fought back. While hostile incidents have decreased recently, contact has not, as indicated by the statement from a senior US military official last month that American and Russian forces are interacting in Syria “nearly every day.”

There appears to be a clear mismatch in the political determination and military investment in the region between Washington and Moscow. Despite the US’s repeatedly stated commitment to protecting Kurdish control of local oil fields, American forces have been drawn down to perhaps a few hundred for the entire area. Russia, meanwhile, continues to scale up its presence and integration with local actors: Russian forces recently developed their base at Qamishli airport on the Turkish border, incorporated attack helicopters into their patrols and have begun training additional local militia forces. In July, the Russians moved more than two dozen tanks and armored vehicles to the village of Mazloum, on the eastern side of the Euphrates river and barely two kilometers from where US forces are located.

All of this is occurring against a background of an increasing number of assassinations, bombings and other attacks by various local underground cells, not the least among them being ISIS. Insurgents from this group, active since the urban centers of the eastern Syrian desert were retaken by regime forces in 2017, have ramped up their activity, regularly raiding pro-government troops and ambushing patrols in Deir Ezzor and Hama provinces.

Additionally, there is the increasing prevalence of cells established and directed by Syrian military intelligence, cells that may be linked to the killings of several important tribal sheikhs in the region. Further adding to the chaos, there have been several deadly confrontations between Russian-backed militias and pro-regime formations in Deir Ezzor province. Local media have reported the Al-Quds Brigade, a unit with close links to the Russian military, expelling pro-regime militiamen from oil fields east of the town of Al-Bukamal, resulting in clashes and deaths.

It is thus very surprising that US companies are now becoming more invested in northeast Syria than ever, at a time when American control over the region is weaker than at any point in the last few years. The revelation that an American firm had reached a $150 million deal with the Kurdish-led regional government to build a refinery and conduct exploration activity in three local oil fields appears directly at odds with the continued drawdown of American forces and as their various rivals all grow stronger.

Such a deal could prove especially provocative considering what occurred two and a half years ago, when mercenaries from the Russian government-linked Wagner mercenary group launched a four-hour all-out assault on US positions east of the Euphrates. While most Wagner forces have since been withdrawn from the region, Russia’s regular military is more entrenched than ever, and Moscow, Damascus and Tehran all have condemned the oil deal. The likelihood that its provisions, which will take years to fulfill, can be carried out without incident is vanishingly low.

The growing mismatch between US and Russian assets in the region is compounded by the seemingly expanding ambitions of American firms to exploit the region’s oil reserves, even at a time when US political will appears questionable and the US military presence is declining. It’s possible that bolstering US military assets on the ground could reverse this, but there are few signs that Moscow is considering reducing its footprint.

The current status quo is unsustainable. And one side or the other, whether Moscow or Washington, will be forced to blink first in their deepening standoff in Syria’s northeast.

Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Tbilisi, Georgia. His work focuses on the Syrian conflict, particularly Russia’s role; politics and minorities in the South Caucasus; and violence and politics in the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya and Ingushetia.