Pentagon voices ‘strong concerns’ to Russia over strikes on US-backed Syria rebels
U.S. officials repeatedly say that the United States and Russia share the goal of defeating Daesh (ISIS). Why then has Russia apparently attacked the New Syrian Army – a U.S.-armed and trained force whose sole purpose is fighting Daesh? And how can the United States salvage its ability to recruit local partners against the extremist group?The NSA is a small but relatively well-equipped force of several hundred in eastern Syria, largely drawn from and fighting in Homs and Deir al-Zor provinces. U.S. covert and special operations personnel equipped and trained the unit, and it is tasked with fighting Daesh (not Russia’s ally, the regime). Thus, while it is an army of local fighters, it is also essentially a U.S. proxy force. Similar to the Kurdish PYD and its local Arab partners, the NSA shares the U.S. priority of fighting Daesh rather than the regime.
Through the lens of U.S. policy, which sees the war on Daesh as separate from the broader civil war in Syria, Russia has no obvious reason to attack the NSA since it does not fight the regime. Yet according to an unnamed senior U.S. defense official, on June 16, Russia launched an airstrike on a New Syrian Army position in the strategic Al-Tanf border area, which was recently seized from Daesh. By one account that strikes killed two NSA fighters and wounded four others, in addition to damaging NSA vehicles. Other sources confirmed the attacks (though not the perpetrators).
Russia may have mistaken NSA fighters for Daesh ones. However, a U.S. military source claims Russia ignored warnings to stop the strikes, indicating the operation was planned and deliberate. It is therefore likely that Russia deliberately attacked and killed fighters that the U.S. trained, equipped, and deployed in service of a major national security interest and U.S. military campaign.
A deliberate Russian attack may have been aimed at disrupting the NSA’s intended northeast offensive toward the Daesh-held border town of Al-Bukamal. If the NSA takes Al-Bukamal, it would probably keep moving north to sever Daesh supply lines from Iraq, and in the process flank the Daesh-held city of Deir al-Zor. The regime is already fighting to preserve its foothold in Deir al-Zor, and likely intends to expand it after that.
A NSA thrust northward would force the regime and Russia to cede strategic (and oil-rich) territory to a U.S. proxy.
Worse, these NSA fighters are both native to the areas and a projection of U.S. power. Alternatively, Russia may have wanted to avoid a precedent of U.S.-backed local forces retaking important terrain from Daesh.
Russian motives may never be known, but the fact remains that Russia felt confident enough to bomb a U.S. proxy group in Syria and kill U.S.-backed fighters that posed no immediate threat, had not come into conflict with Russia or the regime, and espoused an agenda to which Russia was nominally subscribed. The United States already has a poor record of protecting local groups that it supports in the insurgency in Syria, but those groups are not full-fledged partners since they fight both Daesh and the regime while the United States is focused on the former. The NSA, however, is an arm of a critical U.S. counterterrorism campaign – a campaign built on having local forces do the bulk of the fighting.
Would-be U.S. allies against Daesh are closely watching how the United States treats its local partners, especially whether it can protect them from unprovoked attacks by enemies they are not supposed to have. Yet in the wake of Al-Tanf airstrikes, a senior U.S. defense official responded, “We will seek an explanation from Russia on why it took this action and assurances this will not happen again.” At this point, an explanation and promise are unlikely to inspire local confidence in the United States. It seems that embedded U.S. personnel are the only way to protect groups against attacks by Russia and its partners. U.S. groups already operate with Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces fighting Daesh in northern Syria. Arab anti-Daesh forces like the NSA are just as important given that they are indigenous to Daesh-controlled territory. They are also no less deserving of full protection by the U.S., without which only an irrational fighter would join any U.S. effort against Daesh.
Faysal Itani is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. This commentary is published by permission from the Atlantic Council and can be accessed at: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/a-possible-and-unusual-russian-attack-on-us-allies.