The Syrian civil war is currently in its 7th year. The battlefield has changed multiple times together with a number of belligerents. The dynamic political and military stage has fostered numerous violent ideological and religious groups affiliated with Western and Islamic states. Each governs its own territory at the expense of the government in Damascus. However, the support and interference of two states have changed the battlefield dramatically: the Russian Federation’s assistance to the Syrian government and the United States’ to the Syrian Democratic forces (“SDF”).
Until September 2015 the Syrian government forces of Bashar Al-Assad were slowly but surely losing ground to a variety of rebel groups supported by Western and Islamic states. However, the decision of Russian president Vladimir Putin to interfere in the Syrian Civil War changed the outcome dramatically. On the date of this writing, the Syrian government has increased its territory from 19.000 square kilometers to 78.000 and also achieved major victories in Aleppo, Latakia, Deir ez-Zor and Palmyra.
In October 2015 the formation of the SDF was announced. This group consists mostly of Kurdish fighter from the People’s Protection Units (“YPG”) and Arabs with smaller contingents of Assyrian, Turkmen and Chechen fighters. According to the Pentagon, the group consists of 40% Kurds and 60% Arabs (including other ethnic groups). However, other sources estimate the percentage of Arabs significantly less. The support of the coalition under the leadership of the US has ensured the steady flow of weapons, technical support and air support for the SDF.
Furthermore, Islamic State’s control of Syrian territory has significantly decreased with major gains in the west from government forces and SDF in the north. However, the remaining area IS controls, is also the most sought of prize together with large cities due to the presence of oil and gas fields. Control of these territories is essential for any future government as it provides vital financial means.
In the case of the SDF, control of the oil and gas fields provides an important bargaining chip with the Syrian government in Damascus. On 26th of September 2017 Wallid Mualem, the Syrian minister of foreign affairs, announced that autonomy for the Kurdish population in the northeast is possible and negotiable. This has increased the importance of the oil and gas fields.
The situation is complicated by the pipeline infrastructure from the oil and gas fields to densely populated areas in the western Syria and coastal area of Latakia for export purposes. If government forces regain control of the energy-rich territory, they will be in a strong position as they also control the infrastructure. However, if the SDF achieves this goal, they will have no other point then to negotiate as they don’t have other options to export this landlocked wealth. Whoever defeats the remaining IS forces in Deir ez-Zor province, acquires a major asset in the economic future of Syria. It all comes down to control of this crucial area and the potential willingness to negotiate on a deal.
Vanand Meliksetian for ApricotLawyer.com
images: International Energy Agency