Geopolitical calculations are currently ruling the contest for eastern Syria. This comes as forces, backed regionally and internationally, are fighting for this area.
Different players race to control eastern Syria
A report published by Al-Monitor website lists the potential gains regional and international powers such as Iran, US and Russia, are racing to achieve in eastern Syria.
The Syrian government has been progressing in recent weeks in three regions in central and eastern Syria, east of Aleppo toward the Raqqa axis, in the Deir ez-Zor region and al-Tanf, close to where the borders of Jordan, Iraq and Syria meet.
At the same time, US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are gaining territory in ISIS' Raqqa stronghold, while US coalition forces have clashed with pro-regime militias in the area of al-Tanf.
Iran has also been pushing on the other side of the border, in the sector of Baaj in western Iraq.
Fabrice Balanche, a French expert on Syria at the Washington Institute, told Al-Monitor that the geopolitical importance of eastern Syria is twofold, noting that two-thirds of Syrian oil is located in the area, which is also rich in gas resources.
The region is also a pathway for Iran to Syria via Iraq, through the Sinjar-Tal Afar-Hasakah axis in the north and through the Palmyra axis in the south, he said.
Balanche added that economic calculations for the Syrian regime, besides the oil and gas, include reopening important trade routes such as the highway linking Baghdad to Damascus.
Syrian regime ambitions
The French experts stated that in the northeast the Syrian regime feels it can eventually exert enough pressure on the Kurds and make a power-sharing deal with them, pointing out that they have already forced the Kurds to abandon al-Thawra dam.
Backed by Russian airstrikes, the Syrian regime is also making a push in Palmyra’s southeastern countryside, targeting the Bir al-Badiya area.
“Russia’s priority is to safeguard Syrian territory, which explains its backing of regime forces in eastern Syria, Balanche added.
The takeover of Palmyra will allow the regime to progress to the east in the area of Deir ez-Zor, another ISIS bastion. The operation appears to be in coordination with offensives by Iranian Militias in Iraq and Syria (IMIS) across the border near Sinjar as well as Baaj.
The Baaj area has been seized by the Iraqi forces and IMIS, and this area is on the borders with Syria,” Mustafa al-Yasiri, the assistant Syria portfolio official for the Iraqi Shiite militia group Saraya al-Jihad, said in an interview June 10 with researcher Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi.
For Yezid Sayigh, a Syrian expert at the Carnegie Middle East Center, Iran is supporting the regime in eastern Syria in part by encouraging IMIS to signal their readiness to join the fight for eastern Syria.
Creating an Iranian corridor
For the first time since the Syrian civil war began, Iranian-backed militias appear to have secured a road link from the Iranian border all the way to Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
The new land route will allow the Iranian regime to resupply its allies in Syria by land instead of air, which is both easier and cheaper.
It is clear that Tehran’s main objective in the region is to create a corridor connecting Tehran to Beirut.
The development is potentially momentous, because, for the first time, it would bind together, by a single land route, a string of Iranian allies, including Hezbollah, in Lebanon; the Assad regime, in Syria; and the Iranian-dominated government in Iraq.
Those allies form what is often referred to as the Shiite Crescent, an Iranian sphere of influence in an area otherwise dominated by Sunni Muslims.
US, Russia's goals
The priority of the US is to block IS’ advance and the Iranian expansion from Iraq to Syria, Balanche said.
However, it remains unclear what the United States and Russia really seek to achieve in eastern Syria, Sayigh said.
Russia wants a political solution for Syria, and so might not invest major resources in the east unless the regime shows more willingness to accept a diplomatic solution.
The United States has no policy on Syria, but US military commanders have been given autonomy by the Trump administration to act as they deem necessary in the fight against ISIS, and so they seek to expand opposition operations in the east.
But they, too, have a limit: They will not get directly involved in fighting for towns in Deir ez-Zor province, such as Bou Kamal and Mayadin, Sayigh added.
Some experts have argued the specter of Syria’s partition, through the enforcement of a frozen conflict whereby various factions will remain in control of their territory, may be raised. This in turn will eventually contributed to the fast-decaying process of Syria.