Russia and Iran Prepare For New Syria Battlefield

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By Matti Suomenaro, Samantha Leathley, and Aaron Hesse with Christopher Kozak

Key Takeaway: Russia and Iran have begun to exploit the new strategic environment created by the forthcoming withdrawal of the U.S. from Syria (map). Russia, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad mobilized additional units to the Middle Euphrates River Valley in Eastern Syria in late December 2018.[1] These reinforcements – which included elite units of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) as well as elements of the Russian Armed Forces – are postured to cross the Euphrates River and seize valuable oil-rich terrain currently held by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition and allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Russia and Assad also deployed reinforcements to block an imminent offensive by Turkey against the SDF in Manbij in Northern Syria on December 28. These deployments are not included in this graphic’s field of view. The Russo-Iranian Coalition likely intends to deter further gains by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan while it engineers a political reconciliation between the SDF and Damascus.

The Russo-Iranian Coalition is also using the announced withdrawal to coopt partners and allies of the U.S. in Syria and Iraq. The SDF has recognized that it cannot withstand combined pressure from Russia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey without the support of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. It has reopened talks – albeit from a weaker bargaining position – regarding a diplomatic resolution with Assad. It has also called for further pro-regime deployments to secure the Syrian-Turkish Border. The ultimate outcome of these negotiations will likely include the handover of large parts of Northern and Eastern Syria to the Russo-Iranian Coalition. Meanwhile, concerns over border security have also drawn Iraq closer to the Russo-Iranian Coalition. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mehdi dispatched a high-ranking delegation led by Iran-friendly Iraqi National Security Advisor Falih al-Fayyadh to Damascus on December 30. Assad authorized Iraq to conduct unilateral cross-border airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. Russia and Iran will likely attempt to encourage these deepening ties as yet another vector to increase their influence over the Government of Iraq and develop regional power projection capability at the expense of the U.S. in the Middle East.The map below depicts the Russo-Iranian Coalition’s known positions in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq as of January 3, 2019. The graphic has also been updated to depict positions held by the SAA and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Position locations are based on information available in open sources reviewed by the Institute for the Study of War. The map does not show positions held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition.

The following map depicts the Russo-Iranian Coalition’s posture on December 19, 2018 — the day the U.S. announced its impending withdrawal from Syria.

[1] “Russia Is at the Forefront Again in Deir Ezzor,” December 24, 2018, https://en(.)deirezzor24.net/russia-is-at-the-forefront-again-in-deir-ezzor/?fbclid=IwAR01gRtRDLK1WQJVEPFZ_h2I0a3dScL1liufIoJLdmofhcTKHAT1PSUeDro; Euphrates Post, Twitter, December 22, 2018, https://twitter.com/EuphratesPost/status/1076694931983552517.
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