AMMAN —  Previously a source of humor, a serious confrontation between competing forces deployed in northeast Syria is now well within the realm of possibilities. 

On February 12, a member of the pro-Syrian government militia National Defense Forces (NDF) was killed in a clash with a US patrol in the village of Kherbat Ammo in the southern countryside of the city of Qamishli. Following the incident, an airstrike by the Global Coalition (against ISIS) targeted an NDF checkpoint in the same village. A Russian patrol had arrived at the scene of the accident, but did not interfere or provide any resolution. 

Prior to the incident, US forces had prevented Russian patrols from advancing in the region on multiple occasions. For example, on February 4, a Russian patrol was prevented from advancing towards the Rumailan fields in eastern Qamishli. On January 25, a Russian patrol was intercepted by US forces on the Tal Tamr-Qamishli road that forms part of the Latakia-Aleppo International highway (M4).

These incidents come as a result of "the confusion of the American policy in the region, and Russia's attempt to exploit that," Nawaf Khalil, director of the Kurdish Center for Studies (KCS) in Qamishli, told Syria Direct. "The Russians are trying to use the Turkish occupation to their advantage." 

Since the formation of the Global Coalition in September 2014, northeast Syria—controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—has become a zone of US influence. There are 10 US bases throughout the region, four of them located in Hasakah province, in addition to other logistical, intelligence, and security posts. 

However, on October 9, 2019, Turkey launched "Operation Peace Spring" against the SDF on the pretext that it was an extension of the (Turkish) Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that is considered a terrorist group by Turkey and the US. Consequently, the SDF rushed to reach an agreement with Damascus and Moscow. 

According to the agreement, Russian and Syrian government forces would be allowed to deploy on the border with Turkey. The agreement was later reinforced by a Russian-Turkish agreement on October 22, 2019, in Sochi, which led to the suspension of Turkey’s military operation. 

The uncertain US position

On the eve of the commencement of “Operation Peace Spring,” US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US forces from Syria. Although he later retracted his decision, US forces retreated from the city of Manbij and Ain al-Arab (Kobane) in the northwestern countryside of Aleppo, and the entire Raqqa province as well, including al-Tabqah military airport. 

However, the US maintained its bases in the provinces of Deir e-Zor and Hasakah, except the Mabqara base in the countryside of Tal Tamr, west of Hasakah province. The Mabqara base is a cattle farm that US forces turned into a military base, which is now being used by Russia. 

On February 8, the US strengthened its presence in Hasakah province and transformed the former headquarters of the Self-Defense Forces of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA), in the Ghuwayran neighborhood, south of the city of Hasakah, into a military base. 

It also transformed its intelligence post in the village of Himou at the western entrance of the city of Qamishli into an assembly point for its military patrols, according to a commander in the SDF who spoke to Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity. He added that US forces “are currently working to build a new base in the village of Ali Feroo in Tal Brak, 10 kilometers from Qamishli on the road to Hasakah.”

As the following map shows, bases dispersed throughout the Hasakah province include a military base in the city of Malikiyah [Dayrik]; an agricultural airfield in the village of Rmailan Sheikh after it was expanded and turned into a military airport and base; a military post in the village of Sfatah to the east of Malikiyah; a military post in the village of Delafi Kara, an agricultural airfield in the village of Rubariyah that the US forces are using as an airstrip; a military post in Jal Agha-al-Jawadiyah district that is part of al-Malikiyah administrative region, a military post in the village of Qasrouk in the Tal Beydar area on the Latakia-Aleppo international highway (M4) before the city of Tal Tamr; and a military base in the Minister Resthouse in the city of al-Shaddadi, in the south of Hasakah province. 

A map showing the locations of the American and Russian military bases and posts in Hasakah province, northeastern Syria (Syria Live Map)

US interests in Hasakah and Deir e-Zor provinces, according to the SDF commander, are the result of its pursuit of “preserving oil” in Hasakah—something President Trump has confirmed on several occasions. 

But what has happened in northeastern Syria also reveals “a difference between Trump’s vision and that of his military commanders. Trump’s decision to withdraw was rejected by the military commanders who do not want to leave the region and its oil to Russia and Iran,” he added. 

The spread of Russian influence

On November 1, 2019, as per the bilateral agreement between the two countries, Russian and Turkish forces conducted the first joint patrol on the Syrian-Turkish border in the region between the village of Sherak and the city of Derbasiyah in the Hasakah countryside. This constituted Russia’s first entry into northeastern Syria after its presence was previously limited to “some military advisors inside the Qamishli airport, which has [now] become the largest military base for the Russians,” the SDF commander said. 

In addition to the Qamishli airport and Mabqara military base, Russian forces are located throughout northeast Syria, according to sources on the ground that spoke to Syria Direct. As the attached map shows, Russian forces are located at the vocational school at the southern entrance of the city of Amouda in the northern countryside of Hasaka province; the entrance to the al-Sina’aa neighborhood in the city of Derbasiyah, north of Hasakah province; and in the village of Abu Rasin in the western part of Hasakah. 

As for the areas in Raqqa province where US forces are withdrawing from, Russian forces are now present in Ain al-Arab (Kobane) and the city of Manbij in the northern countryside of Aleppo. The Russians are also present at the Tabqa military airport, south of Raqqa province; the 93rd brigade, located in the city of Ain Issa in north Raqqa; the “Serin” airbase; a military base in the village of “Khrab Eshak” in Ain al-Arab [Kobane]; and al-Saidiya military base in the western countryside of Manbij. 

Competition and struggle

In February 2018, Syrian government forces, backed by Iranian and Russian militias (including the Wagner paramilitary organization), attempted to advance to areas east of the Euphrates that fall under US influence. The US responded with airstrikes that resulted in dozens of deaths in what international media considered the first military confrontation between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War.

Later, when the US announced its withdrawal from northeast Syria, Russia saw an opportunity to spread its influence in the region. While the redeployment of US forces in Hasakah province and the northeastern countryside of Deir e-Zor has frustrated Moscow’s ambitions for at least sometime, this decision has also created an opportunity for the two forces to clash with one another. 

The newly-designated map of influence in the region confines American influence to areas between “the city of Qamishli and Iraqi Kurdistan in the east, and south to Hasakah province,” according to the SDF commander, while the Russian area of influence falls between “west of Qamishli city and the town of Tal Tamr, in the far west of Hasakah, and south towards Hasakah city.” Nonetheless, this has not prevented the two competing forces from moving beyond their de-facto borders. 

The SDF commander recounted what happened at the border crossing from Simalka to Iraqi Kurdistan, where “a Russian patrol was heading towards the crossing that fell within the area of American influence, and our forces were not able to stop them. This forced us to call the American military leadership in the countryside of the city of Dirk [al-Malikiya], in the far east of Syria, who sent an American patrol and closed the road to Russia.”

This incident and others like it “do not point to a lack of coordination between Russia and the United States in northeast Syria, but rather demonstrate disputes between them,” according to the political analyst Nour al-Deen Omar, from Qamishli city. 

“The United States is trying to limit Russian influence in the region after failing to do so through creating disputes between Moscow and Ankara,” he told Syria Direct.

On January 25, the commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), General Kenneth McKenzie, traveled to eastern Syria and examined US military bases and observation posts in Hasakah province, in what was understood as “America attempting to remedy its past mistake in declaring its withdrawal from Syria,” according to Omar. 

The researcher Nawaf Khalil said that this trip “comes against the backdrop of the repercussions of the killing of [the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander] Qassem Soleimani, which may strengthen the American presence in Syria.” He cited the United States’ continual “deliveries of weapons and logistical resources to build new bases in Qamishli and other regions.” 

Khalil added that “General McKenzie’s trip is a message to several parties. The first is to the SDF, that they will continue to have a relationship and to fight Daesh,” using an Arabic acronym for ISIS. “The other one is to Russia and Iran and the Syrian regime, that [the Americans] will not abandon this area. It is also a message to ISIS fighters and those who support them.”

But for the political analyst Omar, “the United States lacks a clear strategy in Syria, where they lost many of their strengths in the region under the Trump administration to Russia and Iran.” As a result, “Russian influence is stronger in Syria than America’s, and therefore Washington may be forced to withdraw from Syria.”

This article was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh, Megan Pierce, and Calvin Wilder.