The briefing with a map of Idlib
On Wednesday October 31 Russia’s Defense Ministry slammed the US-led Coalition’s role in eastern Syria and said that Raqqa was in danger of deteriorating to the point of fueling renewed extremism. Major General Igor Konashenkov, the spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry, gave a wide-ranging discussion about Syria, complete with maps showing the US role in Tanf in southern Syria, and accusing rebel groups in Idlib of preparing a “false flag” attack.
Moscow devoted a large portion of its discussion, including showing a map of ISIS activity in Hajin. The points to increased interest by Moscow and its Syrian ally in what is happening in eastern Syria. After claiming that other areas of Syria that were retaken by Damascus in the last year are improving, the Ministry said that the “situation is quite different in the territories where controlled coalitions and, in particular, the US armed forces operate.”
Raqqa: A “tragedy”
The spokesman said that Raqqa was a ‘tragedy” and the city had not recovered since it was liberated from ISIS last year by the Syrian Democratic Forces and their Coalition allies. “It has been a year since, as a result of coalition bombings, this city was virtually wiped off the face of the earth. Thousands of bodies of dead citizens remain today under the ruins of buildings, which decompose and poison the aquifers. There is no running water in the city, no electricity, no de-mining, no shops, hospitals and pharmacies working.”
Russia claimed that it was impossible to drive to Raqqa on civilian roads and that only units of the coalition and their partners were able to get to the city. This was apparently a reference to not opening a road to Deir ez Zor or the rest of Syria. “In this city, as in other areas controlled by the coalition, anarchy, famine and devastation flourish, which, of course, is a breeding ground for the restoration of the activities of terrorist groups.”
The Coalition “gray zone”
Then the spokesman sought to focus on the rest of eastern Syria. “Speaking generally about the territory controlled by the United States in Syria, it should be noted that this is not a de-escalation zone, not a deconflict zone, it is a ‘gray zone’ in which the situation is rapidly deteriorating.” The use of the term “gray zone” may refer to the zone being in limbo, but could also be a reference to the ISIS concept of gray zone that it exploits. Russia claims that ISIS committed “57 terrorist attacks and attacks on representatives of the Syrian democratic forces. Over 300 Kurdish militias killed and wounded,” apparently referring to the recent battles around the Hajin pocket since October 10. MECRA covered this earlier in the month.
Russia appears to take a keen interest in what is happening in eastern Syria, claiming foreign military members have been injured and that on October 11 “ISIS militants seized several dozen hostages, including refugees, in the area of the settlement of El-Bahra. Subsequently, the hostages were killed by terrorists.” Of interest, the MOD briefing does not mention that ISIS is holding Druze hostages kidnapped near Suweida in the summer. Of interest also in the briefing is that Russia refers to the “local indigenous people” and “repression against the Arab population.”
Russia claims to be concerned that ISIS has retaken villages in the Euphrates valley in recent days. It says that ISIS retook Susah, Es-Safafna, El Marashda, and El Baghuz al-Fuqani. “According to reports, the armed forces of ISIL continue to receive modern equipment and weapons. We are closely following the routes of receipt of these weapons, for which a special commission has been created.”
Accusations against US in Tanf
Then Russia turned its attention to Tanf. “Syrian government troops have cleared the area around this [Tanf] zone from ISIS. And it is from this zone, controlled by the United States, gangs of militants run into the Syrian civilian settlements like a snuff box.” The characterization of Tanf as a place where the US “trains militants” is part of the overall narrative pushed by pro-Moscow media that has alleged the US has been “caught” evacuating ISIS members. The Ministry statement doesn’t claim that, but intimates at it.
Why Moscow’s sudden interest?
The briefing appears to indicate the increasing interest Moscow is taking in eastern Syria. In the past Damascus and Moscow have both condemned the US role in Tanf and eastern Syria. But as the US seeks to expand its diplomatic presence and as the US is continuing to train members of the SDF and fight ISIS in Hajin, Russia may be concerned about an open ended role for Washington in Syria. In late October Turkey began shelling SDF and YPG positions in northern Syria and Turkey has vowed to “bury PKK terrorists in their own trenches in Manbij.” it appears that the Moscow statements about Raqqa are designed to imply that the US-led Coalition is mismanaging eastern Syria and cast doubt on the SDF role amid the tensions with the ISIS counterattacks in Hajin and the Turkish shelling.
Russia will pose as the responsible party, the one that has brokered the Idlib deal, and has helped bring quiet to the Golan, and now is willing to play a role in eastern Syria. Moscow wants to become indispensable in Syria, so that it is relied on by Iran, the Syrian regime, Turkey, Israel and other parties, all of which go to Russia to seek guidance and agreements. Eastern Syria is the one place that Russia has not been able to accomplish that. The US has been systematically excluded from the Astana talks and Turkey recently hosted Germany’s Merkel, along with France’s Macron and Russia’s Putin. The message in these meetings is clear, the US is not invited. In the past Russia also bypassed the Geneva discussions that the Obama administration had been involved in, moving practical discussions to Astana. It appears also that the Afrin offensive in January was signed off on by Moscow before Turkey intervened.
The last stage is for Russia to find a way to play a role in eastern Syria. How that will happen is not yet clear, but the October 31 statement is.