In the first of a series from Syria, Robert Fisk says that new connections, however tenuous, demonstrate that all sides are determined to avoid military confrontation between Moscow and Washington
After a sweeping Syrian military advance to the edge of the besieged Isis “capital” of Raqqa, the Russians, the Syrian army and Kurds of the YPG militia – theoretically allied to the US – have set up a secret “coordination” centre in the desert of eastern Syria to prevent “mistakes” between the Russian-backed and American-supported forces now facing each other across the Euphrates river.
The proof could be found this week in a desert village of mud-walled huts and stifling heat – it was 48 degrees – where I sat on the floor of an ill-painted villa with a Russian air force colonel in camouflage uniform, a young officer of the Kurdish militia – with a YPG (Kurdish People’s Militia) patch on his sleeve – and a group of Syrian officers and local Syrian tribal militiamen.
Their presence showed clearly that despite belligerent Western – especially American – claims that Syrian forces are interfering with the “Allied” campaign against Isis, both sides are in reality going to enormous lengths to avoid confrontation. Russian Colonel Yevgeni, thin and close-shaven with a dark moustache, smiled politely but refused to talk to me – The Independent being the first western news media to visit the tiny village near Resafeh – but his young Kurdish opposite number, who asked me not to disclose his name, insisted that “all of us are fighting in one campaign against Daesh [Isis], and that is why we have this centre – and to avoid mistakes”. Colonel Yevgeni nodded approvingly at this description but maintained his silence – a wise man, I thought – for he must be the easternmost Russian officer in Syria, only a few miles from the Euphrates river.
The 24-year-old Kurdish YPG representative, a veteran of the Isis siege of Kobani on the Turkish border, said that just over two weeks ago – after the latest Syrian offensive took Isis forces west of Raqqa by surprise – a Russian air strike had mistakenly targeted a Kurdish position. “That is why we set up our centre here 10 days ago,” he said. “We talk everyday and we already have another centre at Afrin to coordinate the campaign. We have to make one force that fights together.” The presence of these men at this remote desert outpost shows just how seriously Moscow views the strategy of the Syrian war and the need to monitor the largely Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Forces” who are already inside Raqqa with the support of US air strikes.
The SDF – which has nothing democratic about it except perhaps its pay scales – is regarded with deep suspicion by the Turks, who will be enraged to learn of the Syrian-Kurdish cooperation, even though both Ankara and Damascus are both ferociously opposed to the creation of a future Kurdish state. But, however tenuous the new YPG-Russian-Syrian connections may be, they demonstrate that all sides are determined to avoid any military confrontation between Moscow and Washington.
There was more than a whiff of TE Lawrence about the self-confidence of these few men amid the dust and sand which covered most of us the moment we stepped outside their office. Around us on the desert floor lay hundreds of bombed or abandoned Isis oil “wells” – amateurishly built iron barrels and concrete platforms from which Isis extracted the oil to finance their caliphate, which once stretched from here all the way to Mosul. The YPG officer insisted that the location of the Russian-Syrian-Kurdish centre had no connection to the vast Syrian oil fields around us, but evidence of recent Russian and American attacks on the Isis constructions was everywhere.
Burned-out oil tankers, trucks and even some exploded Syrian tanks – presumably victims of Isis – lay across the desert. One trail of tankers – much like those angrily described by Vladimir Putin almost two years ago, taking oil exports to sell in Turkey – stood carbonised beside the road. Even a lorry carrying potatoes had been blitzed apart. There was no sign of bodies but the Syrian army had with some sense of irony left the original black and white Isis sign standing on the main road from Homs, “welcoming” visitors to the Isis “Caliphate-Province of Raqqa”.
Syria’s forward units of Russian-made tanks and infantry armour now cluster not far from the Roman and Umayad city of Resafeh, whose massive walls and stone towers still stand – untouched by Isis’s two years of culturecide, perhaps because their carvings display no human or animal images. Thousands of camels were being herded past the great and crumbling city of the ancient Calipha Umaya bin Hisham Abdul-Malik in a smog of dust which drifted over military hardware and soldiers alike. Resafeh was the Roman city of Sergiopolis, named after a Christian Roman centurion who was tortured and put to death for his religion – not unlike Isis’s own Christian victims in the deserts here three years ago.
The highway east from Homs was expected to have been the route of the Syrian attack this month. Hence the vast earth “berms” and defensive sand walls erected by Isis along the length of the road. But for Isis, the now-infamous Syrian army tactic of assaulting its enemies from the rear and flank drove the caliphate from hundreds of square miles of land west of the Euphrates.
General Saleh, the one-legged commander of the Syrian division on the Euphrates – who has adapted this policy many times, along with his fellow officer and friend, Colonel “Tiger” Suheil – says that his forces could, if he wished, be in the centre of Raqqa within five hours “if we decided to do that”. He described how his men had first driven al-Qaeda and Isis from the Sheikh Najjar industrial city outside Aleppo back to the Assad lake, how they had protected the water supply to the city at great loss to their own forces, how they had moved east from the Koyeress airbase to capture Deir Hafer and Meskane and other towns in the Aleppo countryside – and then suddenly surged south east, south of the Euphrates towards Raqqa.
“Our forces are now seven miles from the Euphrates between Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour, 14 miles from the centre of Raqqa and 10 miles from the old Thabqa airbase,” the general almost shouted. “How many Daesh did we kill? I don’t care. I am not interested. Daesh, Nusrah, al-Qaeda, they are all terrorists. Their deaths do not matter. It’s war.”
But, I suggested to General Saleh – because I had been studying my sand-blasted maps and had listened to many a military lecture in Damascus of late – surely his next target would be not Raqqa (already partly invested by American-backed forces) but the huge surrounded Syrian garrison city of Deir ez-Zour with its thousands of trapped civilians.
“Our President has said we will recover every square inch of Syria,” the general replied, repeating the mantra of all Syrian officers of the regime. “Why do you say Deir ez-Zour?” Because, I said, that would release the 10,000 Syrian soldiers in the city to fight on the war front. There was just a hint of a grin on the officer’s face, but then it faded. In fact, I don’t think the Syrians will get involved with the American-supported force fighting for Raqqa – that, after all, was the point of the little “coordination” centre I saw in the desert – but I do believe the Syrian army are heading for Deir ez-Zour. As for the general, of course, he was saying nothing about this. Nor, obviously, did he believe in body counts.
There is, in reality, another intriguing tactic being deployed by the Syrian administration. The local Rif Raqqa governor – “rif” indicates the countryside around a city, not to be confused with the town itself – is now setting up headquarters near General Saleh’s caravan. It’s a real campaign caravan, by the way, which rocks when you step aboard, his office and bedroom combined in one small room, his black walking stick by the bed-head. The local governor, however, is scarcely a mile away, planning the restoration of water and electricity supplies, the financing of public works and relief for refugees.
When I left the area, 29 families – cartloads of children and black-shrouded women and upturned sofas – had just arrived in Rasafeh from Deir ez-Zour to seek the Raqqa governor’s assistance. Another 50 had arrived the previous day. It seemed perfectly obvious that if the Syrian army lets America’s largely Kurdish friends occupy Raqqa, it is going to help the Syrian government civilian administration take over the city by the force of bureaucracy. How would that be for a bloodless victory?
But military self-confidence is often the handmaiden of misadventure. The highway that forms the tip of the Homs-Aleppo triangle has now been extended 60 miles to Resafeh, and General Saleh makes no secret that Isis and its fellow cultists return across the desert after dark to attack his soldiers. These men – many of whom are teenagers – are billeted in tent encampments beside the road, protected by tanks and anti-aircraft guns. And their battles are constant, Isis still placing IED bombs beside the highway today. When I later travelled across the desert to Homs, I followed for some time a truck carrying a 155mm artillery piece so overused that its barrel had split apart.
Yet already, Syrian engineers are restoring electricity capacity from the desert generating stations which have only recently been hideouts for Isis leaders, a power system intimately connected to the Syrian oil fields, slowly being recovered from the Isis enemy, which remain – modest though they are in comparison with the great Gulf, Iraqi and Iranian oil resources – Syria’s “pearl in the desert”. Who controls these wealth machines – how their product will be shared now it has been freed from the Isis mafia – will determine part of Syria’s future political history.