TSG IntelBrief: Huge Shifts and Risks in Syria
September 22, 2017

Huge Shifts and Risks in Syria


Bottom Line Up Front

• As the Syrian battlefield gets smaller but more intense, the U.S., Russia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey are running out of room to avoid direct conflicts.

• On September 21, Russian officials issued a formal warning to U.S. commanders their forces would fire on areas near Deir Azour held by U.S.-backed SDF forces and U.S. personnel, if attacked again.

• Russian troops and Assad regime forces also crossed the Euphrates River this week, despite its tentative status as a deconfliction zone between rival parties.

• It appears Syria, with increasingly open and substantial Russian and Iranian support, is going for a full military victory in the civil war.


The war in Syria is entering yet another stage.  Long-standing regional geopolitics and conflicting spheres of influence are taking on ever greater significance as the battlefield gets smaller, as are limits on U.S. means to substantially change those trends.  Russian and Iranian support for the Assad regime is deeply tied to the national self-interests of both countries. Russia wants to ensure and enhance its military footprint in the region. Iran wants to strengthen its western-bending arc of influence and logistics that runs through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.

The U.S. had hoped the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) could hold the crucial energy and agriculture region on the east bank of the Euphrates River near Deir Azour. Maintaining control of the region could provide significant leverage in a hoped-for negotiated resolution to the civil war, once the Islamic State had been militarily beaten down (though not truly beaten.) However, events in the last week have cast U.S. plans and hopes—always unlikely and problematic—further into doubt. 

On September 21, Russian military spokesman Maj. General Igor Konashenkov warned U.S. commanders Russia would target SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and U.S. personnel operating near Deir Azour, if Russian and Syrian forces continued to come under fire from those areas. Twice in the last week, SDF forces shelled Syrian units that now include Russian special operations forces—a reverse of past incidents, including one last week, where Russian planes bombed SDF units that included U.S. special operations forces (SOF) personnel.  

The Russian warning against any more shelling from SDF positions should be seen both as the pro-Assad coalition’s line in the sand and a declaration it intends to retake all of the Deir Azour region. The warning also comes as both sides are essentially rushing to set facts on the ground before the endgame negotiations; a rush reminiscent of the last months of World War Two, though on a much smaller scale. Russian and Syrian troops have now crossed the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, which the U.S. had hoped would serve as a de facto deconfliction zone, blocking an SDF move from the northeast. The SDF will be unable to seize significant territory while Russian and Syrian troops are there; along with increasing numbers of allied Iranian IRGC and Shi’a militia forces. The U.S. will not risk direct conflict with Russia over the issue, even if blocking Iranian influence in the region is a high-priority security interest for the U.S. As the battlefield shrinks geographically it is intensifying geopolitically; with the risk of inadvertent direct conflict between Russian and U.S. forces, as well as their proxies rising to its highest.

The fortunes of all parties in the long-running civil war have ebbed and flowed for six years, with each side experiencing what were believed at the time to be lasting changes in momentum. With the caveat that Syria remains the most complicated war in recent history, it does appear as it the governments in Damascus, Moscow and Tehran have decided to push for as close as a military victory as possible, and to block U.S. attempts to limit their success. The situation in northern Syria, with Idlib and Turkish intentions along its border, is another issue of massive importance as all sides seek to turn momentum and physical presence into lasting influence and power. 

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