by Paul Iddon
In his May 31 interview with Russia Today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that his regime will soon focus on dealing with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), outlining two options it has to do so in his view: negotiations or force. He claims that he has already “started opening doors for negotiations”, reasoning the fact that “the majority of them are Syrians”, that “supposedly they like their country” and may prove receptive to this option. However, he added that, if negotiations fail, the Syrian Army will be forced to liberate areas occupied by the SDF — “with the Americans, or without the Americans”.
SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel also told Reuters that such a move “is not a solution that can lead to any result. […] Any military solution, as far as the SDF is concerned, will lead to more losses and destruction and difficulties for the Syrian people.”
Several past examples all conclusively show how swiftly the US can bring force to bear when either its troops or the SDF were threatened by Assad or his Iranian-backed militia allies.
On August 18, 2016 two Syrian Air Force warplanes attacked US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces in the northeast city of al-Hasakah following violent clashes there between the Kurds and the pro-government National Defence Forces and the Syrian Army. The impact of the bombs were felt by nearby U.S. special forces. Two Syrian warplanes returned the following day, it’s unclear if they were the same ones, for what appeared to be a second bombing attempt only to have to abort their mission after stealthy U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors swooped in to intercept them. The U.S. and Syrian warplanes came within a mile (around 1.5 km) of each other.
Another incident on June 18, 2017 saw a Syrian Su-22 bomber target SDF positions near al-Tabqah only to be promptly shot down by a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet jet – the first time the U.S. shot down an enemy warplane since the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia. The U.S. justified the action as being “in accordance with [the] rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces.”
On two separates occasions in the same month U.S. Air Force F-15s shot down armed Iranian-made “Shahed 129” drones when they flew into the de-confliction zone around the al-Tanf base near the Jordanian border, where the U.S. trains anti-ISIS fighters, and in the first incident dropped bombs inside that zone. Earlier U.S. airstrikes on May 18, 2017 hit a convoy of pro-regime militiamen moving towards the base’s zone in what was later revealed to have been a misunderstanding.
More recently, last February 7, a large force of pro-regime militiamen and Russian mercenaries backed by armour and artillery attacked an SDF headquarter beside the Euphrates River in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate only to be heavily bombarded by several different US aircraft – ranging from F-15E Strike Eagles and F-22 Raptors to Apache attack helicopters and Reaper drones to enormous B-52 bombers and AC-130 gunships, as well as nearby US Marine-operated artillery guns and rockets – forcing them to retreat in disarray. The attackers suffered significant casualties, many estimates put the figure at over 100, while only a single SDF fighter was wounded and no US personnel harmed.
Taking these precedents into account even a large-scale regime attack against U.S./SDF positions is unlikely to afflict any significant defeat against the U.S. forces in Syria. Aside from the al-Tanf base all the areas in Syria the US has a military presence in are on the east bank of the Euphrates. The way the Euphrates separates northeastern Syrian Kurdish territories and large swathes of Deir ez-Zor from the rest of the country resembles a large moat. While the regime has demonstrated its capability to use Russian-made pontoons — similar to what the Egyptian Army used to cross the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War — to cross the Euphrates in the past (see video below), its forces are unlikely capable of moving large numbers of tanks nor mechanized infantry across the river via pontoons or bridges without being interdicted and destroyed by U.S. aircraft. Even if it does manage to target, or even kill, U.S. troops anywhere in Syria, Washington could — and more likely than not would — promptly retaliate by destroying several regime targets across Syria using large numbers of Tomahawk cruise missiles — which neither Russian nor Syrian forces in the country have the capability to shoot down.
Also, it is highly unlikely Damascus could get Moscow’s backing in any attack against the SDF, never mind U.S. troops. Russia has shown on numerous occasions that it seeks to wrap up the conflict in Syria through negotiations now that the regime is no longer directly threatened. Taking on the SDF and risking a wider war against the U.S. could completely compromise this goal.
Damascus’s empty threats against the Israelis and Turks for their respective attacks on Syrian soil also show why this is a likely outcome. The regime has failed to deter Turkey’s significant ground incursions in the northwest, mostly because Russia never seriously opposed them.
While Moscow has publicly rebuked Israel for past airstrikes, it has never intervened or threatened to shoot down Israeli jet fighters over Syria with the advanced air defense systems, or air superiority fighters, it has based in the country. Furthermore, Moscow recently pushed for a deal with Israel for it to allow just regular Syrian forces to retake southern Syria’s border regions, while preventing Iranian-backed militias from deploying to those areas, following the latest round of Israeli airstrikes on May 10 — which were prompted by an Iranian rocket attack targeting the Golan Heights. Russia also made clear, during a visit to the country by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month, that it won’t supply Damascus with long-range S-300 missiles, after threatening to do so in light of US-led airstrikes against targets connected to Syria’s chemical weapons programs last April.
Assad’s veiled threat against the SDF and its U.S. backer is clearly a bluff since he demonstrably possesses no capability to actually challenge the U.S. military in Syria. The likelihood of Moscow giving tacit support to a Syrian offensive against the SDF and the U.S. military is extremely unlikely for aforementioned reasons. Even if Moscow acquiesces to any regime offensive, Damascus would most likely suffer a swift battlefield defeat at the hands of the U.S. military. Ultimately, so long as the U.S. remains in northeast Syria, Damascus will not be able to send in its army and subdue the Kurds once again. With this being the case, Assad only really has one option: to try and compel the U.S. to leave Syria, and regain some form of control over its northeast, and that is his first one, negotiating with the SDF in good faith.