Just two weeks into its second stage the race for the Euphrates in Syria is reaching a boiling point. The Russian military has just accused the US-backed SDF, or the US itself, of shelling Syrian army units with whom Russian special forces are known to be embedded:
Massive fire from mortars and rocket artillery was opened twice on the Syrian troops from the areas on the eastern shore of Euphrates where the SDF fighters and servicemen of US special forces are based, [Russian defense ministry spokesman] Konashenkov said.
US Marine artillerymen are known to support SDF forces, albeit so far there is only evidence of them operating howitzers, but not mortars or rocket artillery that Russians say were used here. Assuming these bombardments took place they would have almost certainly been the work of SDF fighters — with the ex-rebel, Arab component being the likeliest culprit (the Kurds have a relationship with the Russians they would be foolish to endanger) — but the Russians are clearly allowing the possibility that nearby US special forces had something to do with them.
Moreover the Russian Ministry of Defense has warned it is willing to fire back should the Syrian army come under attack again:
Russia warned the United States it would target areas in Syria where U.S. special forces and U.S.-backed militia were operating if its own forces came under fire from them, which it said on Thursday had already happened twice.
“A representative of the U.S. military command in Al Udeid (the U.S. operations center in Qatar) was told in no uncertain terms that any attempts to open fire from areas where SDF fighters are located would be quickly shut down,” Major-General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
“Fire points in those areas will be immediately suppressed with all military means.”
So to recap, just in the last week we’ve heard:
- An ex-rebel, Arab SDF commander, Abu Khawla, vowing he would stop the Syrian army from crossing the Euphrates
- US accusing Russian jets of bombing SDF positions with US troops nearby
- Russia accusing the SDF of flooding the Euphrates to hamper the Syrian army crossing
- Russia accusing the SDF and US of shelling Syrian army positions with Russian soldiers presumably nearby
At an early stage the race for Euphrates is already threatening to devolve into clashes between the Kurds, Syrian army, Americans and Russians. Given the much more combative posture of the Russians this time around this could escalate even beyond the May-June height of the crisis around al-Tanf in southern Syria.
The US-Kurdish camp would do well to look into the possibility that ex-FSA fighters, such as Abu Khawla, may try to provoke a fight with the Syrian army, and draw the SDF and US into it. Until the rebel-ISIS split of 2014, when they were forced to seek refuge in the Kurdish-held north, these fighters would have been found fighting the Syrian army and may be eager to renew that fight.
After all, if we’re going to have a WW3 it would be nice if it broke out over slightly better reasons than a vendetta of former battlefield allies of ISIS.