Russia has once again accused the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria of facilitating the entry of Islamic State terrorists into Syria in order to hinder the advance of the Syrian Army and its allies. On Tuesday Russia’s defense ministry accused the US of merely “pretending” to fight ISIS in a way designed to put maximum pressure on Syrian and Russian front line defenses in Syria’s east. Russian military spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said, “Everyone sees that the U.S.-led coalition is pretending to fight Islamic State, above all in Iraq, but continuing to allegedly fight Islamic State in Syria actively for some reason.”
The accusation comes a little over two weeks after Russia released aerial images allegedly showing ISIS, the SDF (US-backed “Syrian Democratic Forces”), and US special forces working side-by-side on the battlefield against Syrian and Russian forces in Deir Ezzor, Syria. While the previous charges implied some level of close coordination between US-backed forces and ISIS in the region, the new claims point to coalition air power intentionally facilitating and utilizing ISIS movements to its advantage: “The actions of the Pentagon and the coalition demand an explanation. Is their change of tack a desire to complicate as much as they can the Syrian army’s operation, backed by the Russian air force, to take back Syrian territory to the east of the Euphrates?” asked Konashenkov. He continued with, “Or is it an artful move to drive Islamic State terrorists out of Iraq by forcing them into Syria and into the path of the Russian air force’s pinpoint bombing?”
Konashenkov further stated Syrian troops were in the midst of a fierce campaign to oust Islamic State fighters from the city of al-Mayadin, southeast of Deir Ezzor, but that IS was daily reinforcing its ranks there with “foreign mercenaries” pouring in from Iraq. The implications are that the US coalition is engineering this outcome.
Indeed, it’s no secret that throughout the course of the over 6-year long war in Syria, the international powers operating from neighboring countries have allowed border areas to remain remarkably porous, which facilitated record breaking numbers of jihadists entering Syria from dozens of countries. As the US State Department’s own 2014 Country Report on Terrorism confirms, the rate of foreign terrorist entry into Syria over the past years has been unprecedented among any conflict in history: “The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years.”
Though Russian claims will be dismissed as outlandish by some, the latest accusations against the US are consistent with both the historical record and even US internal intelligence reports regarding the rise of the Islamic State, which early in the war envisioned a Sunni “Islamic State” in Syria’s east which could “isolate the Syrian regime” and pressure its regional ally Iran.
One of the more shocking admissions of this strategy came in 2016, when then Secretary of State John Kerry was caught on audio telling a Syrian opposition gathering, which met on the sidelines of a UN General Assembly meeting, that Obama hoped to use ISIS as leverage against Assad. According to Kerry on the leaked audio (25:50):
“And we know that this was growing, we were watching, we saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened”… “(We) thought, however, we could probably manage that Assad might then negotiate. But instead of negotiating he got Putin to support him.”
If the US coalition is indeed allowing ISIS in Iraq to “escape” into eastern Syria, it constitutes a clear continuation of the Obama era policy of “watching” and “managing” Daesh in order to put pressure on Assad and Iran. Former British spy, diplomat, and current Beirut-based Middle East analyst Alastaire Crooke has called this the “wedge concept” of ISIS origins. In previous commentary on the 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) memo which first outlined the wedge concept, Crooke explained:
In short, the DIA assessment indicates that the “wedge” concept was being given new life by the desire to pressure Assad in the wake of the 2011 insurgency launched against the Syrian state. “Supporting powers” effectively wanted to inject hydraulic fracturing fluid into eastern Syria (radical Salafists) in order to fracture the bridge between Iran and its Arab allies, even at the cost of this “fracking” opening fissures right down inside Iraq to Ramadi. (Intelligence assessments purpose is to provide “a view” — not to describe or prescribe policy. But it is clear that the DIA reports’ “warnings” were widely circulated and would have been meshed into the policy consideration.)
Crooke further explained that this policy path could not be easily walked back once committed to, as the latest developments in Deir Ezzor appear to demonstrate. While US presence in Syria is now ostensibly based on anti-terror and anti-ISIS operations, the following dynamics are still in play:
But this “view” has exactly come about. It is fact. One might conclude then that in the policy debate, the notion of isolating Hezbollah from Iran, and of weakening and pressurizing President Assad, simply trumped the common sense judgement that when you pump highly toxic and dangerous fracturing substances into geological formations, you can never entirely know or control the consequences. And once you go down this road, it is not easy to “walk it back,” as it were: the toxicity is already suffused through the rocks. So, when the GCC demanded a “price” for any Iran deal (i.e. massing “fracking” forces close to Aleppo), the pass had been already partially been sold by the U.S. by 2012, when it did not object to what the “supporting powers” wanted .
Just prior to Russia’s latest charges against the US, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah also said on Sunday that American forces were actively hindering the fight against ISIS: “The American air force in some areas prevents the Syrian army and its allies from advancing in areas controlled by Islamic State,” he said in a televised speech. And added further, “The Americans are working to hinder the battle against Islamic State.”
At minimum it should be clear by now to any objective observer that the US is not fundamentally motivated in its race for Deir Ezzor province by defeat of ISIS terrorism, but in truth by control of the eastern province’s oil fields. Whatever oil fields the SDF can gain control of in the wake of Islamic State’s retreat will then used as powerful bargaining leverage in negotiating a post-ISIS Syria. The Kurdish and Arab SDF coalition which is advised by US special forces, for example, recently captured Tabiyeh and al-Isba oil and gas fields northeast of Deir Ezzor city.
Though the US endgame is the ultimate million dollar question in all of this, it appears at least for now that this endgame has something to do with the Pentagon forcing itself into a place of affecting the Syrian war’s outcome and final apportionment of power: the best case scenario being permanent US bases under a Syrian Kurdish federated zone with favored access to Syrian oil doled out by Kurdish partners.
And it appears that the US coalition is now using ISIS as a geopolitical chess piece (not for the first time) to effect this outcome.