Syria: Deir al-Zor attack on US Troops, allies, Shows their Vulnerability

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

US troops and the Kurdish and Arab fighters among whom they are embedded came under a coordinated attack by pro-Damascus militias on late Wednesday into Thursday morning. The action took place in Deir al-Zor Province, in Syria’s far east. It is possible that the pro-regime militias were seeking to take over oil fields in the area.


Some 500 pro-regime militiamen launched the assault against positions of the mixed Kurdish and Arab fighters the US calls the Syrian Democratic Forces, the core of which is the leftwing Kurdish People’s Protection Units or YPG. The US has 2,000 special forces troops embedded with the YPG and some of them were among the Kurdish and Arab units that were just attacked.

According to the Saudi-owned al-Sharq al-Awsat, Arab militiamen of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces accused the Kurdish YPG of withdrawing in advance of the pro-Damascus militia attack, after a secret agreement with Damascus and Russia, leaving the Arab fighters exposed. One Arab fighter was killed by the pro-Damascus militia.

The US-led Syrian Democratic Forces (the Kurdish YPG plus Arab clansmen) had taken Raqqa, the former capital of ISIL/ Daesh (the so-called “Islamic State Group”) and then came on down also to help destroy ISIL in the neighboring Deir al-Zor province southeast of Raqqa. There, however, the Syrian Arab Army of Bashar al-Assad and its Shiite militia auxiliaries also took territory away from ISIL, so that Deir al-Zor is split. Today’s attack was intended to put more territory on the Syrian government side of the ledger and shrink that of the YPG/US.

The pro-Damascus forces and the YPG had been allied against ISIL and seldom came into conflict with one another. But now that ISIL is largely defeated as a territorial force, the long knives are coming out and Damascus is making a play for Deir al-Zor, which has some oil fields and an Arab population of about 1.5 million that chafes under de facto Kurdish rule. It is, moreover, a transport corridor from Iraq into Syria. Some analysts have alleged that US interest in holding some of Deir al-Zor has to do with a plan of blocking Iran from transporting arms to Hizbullah. The Syrian border with Iraq is so long and porous, however, that any such hopes are forlorn.

Russia has been giving air support to the Syrian Arab Army and Shiite militia forces in Deir al-Zor, but the US Pentagon says that the US contacted Russia and received assurances its Aerospace Forces would not interfere in air retaliation. The US military maintains that it launched an air attack on the pro-regime militiamen and killed 100 of them. Such figures should be taken with a large grain of salt, since air attacks on guerrilla groups are usually fairly ineffectual unless ground troops are also deployed.

The presence of US military in eastern Syria endangers those troops and acts as a standing pretext for a wider US war in Syria. Had US personnel been killed yesterday, you can only imagine how Trump would react. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has committed to a perpetual US military presence in Syria.

US personnel are also embedded with leftist Kurds at Manbij in the north, a town that Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to attack. It appears that the US presence in Syria will be continually challenged by local players, with the dangers of a mishap severe.


Bonus video:

France 24 English: “Syria: “The US wants to keep Syria weak divided and poor”

13 Responses

  1. As immoral and disgraceful as the Assad regime is, this attack is a clear violation of int’l law, the US has no authorization to be in Syria, because it needs permission from the Syrian government, which is the only legitimate governing entity in Syria right now, and even though this is a reality many may not like given the atrocities committed by the regime, it is one that ought to be recognised nonetheless. I find it quite funny that the US can simply now use the powers it gave itself from the declaration of the war on terror to target “terrorists” however it defines them wherever it deems fit and if they then have to attack the legitimate government of a country later it is perfectly deemed acceptable. In fact they even call it defence when illegally present US troops are attacked by the government of the country they are in. It amazes me that many seem to fall for the humanitarian aspect of this, i.e. stopping the Assad regime from killing kurds but given how many dictatorships the US supports, that it allies itself with a country that’s creating the largest humanitarian crisis in the world in Yemen and a country that is one of the last settler colonial states in the world. How can such claims of humanitarian intervention particularly among circles on the left be taken seriously?

  2. The United States’ presence in Syria is in direct contravention of international law. Yet this fact rarely appears in media reports.

    Incidents like the above could easily be avoided, if the US simply abided by the same laws it purports to defend.

    • “rarely appears in media reports”
      That might call attention to the annexation of the Golan (a Bad Thing when Russia does it.

  3. To make sure the world knows how powerful we are (seems the local boys in Afghanistan have not gotten the memo) the Prince of Mar a Lago thinks a May Day parade displaying his military hardware will send shivers throughout the middle east.

    Even so, I doubt Trump will refer to Afghanistan or Syria in his future rallies to ask….”Are you tired of winning yet?”

  4. What you call “regime forces” or “pro-Damascus forces” and the so called liberal press calls “Assad’s army” is in fact the national army, which is fighting to reconquer territory lost to the terrorists — mostly terrorist now, while, at the beginning of the war one could still speak of democratic opposition to Assad. What the USA does in Syria is unconscionable. The USA is using the Kurds to build yet other military bases, in a country that does not want them, with the aim to enfeebling the national government and sabotaging Iran. It is shameful.

  5. Despite the reservations from the above comments, one other fact remains: if the US pulls out, the Kurds will suffer yet another defeat, and a chance for something resembling a secular democratic governance (unique in the Middle East) will be squandered. Ultimately, we need to decide what we truly value in our Foreign policy. This – despite all the drawbacks entailed – is an opportunity to begin to do the right thing. We should risk it.

  6. At whatever point a US service person is KIA, there is every suggestion it’ll be hushed up (versus covered up), coming to light inside section B a few weeks later. We have to anticipate adaptation by these people.

    The egg on the regime’s face when that Special Forces guy in Mali was killed is not something they’ll allow to be repeated, inevitable though it is.

    • The question is who is a “service person”?

      Nicole Mansfield was killed in action by the Syrian Arab Army and was ID’d by her State of Michigan Driver’s License. There has been speculation as to how she got there and why she joined the al-Nusra Front.

      When Eric Harroun, a former U.S. Army serviceman, served with an al-Nusra unit and later returned to the U.S. to face a federal indictment, his father stated to the press that he “knew for a fact” his son worked for the CIA while in Syria.

      There are American “volunteers” fighting with the YPG and, also, an estimated 750 British subjects fighting in Syria.

      There are indications that the CIA has operatives that the Trump administration has believed are MIA and caused the U.S. to send an emissary to Damascus to meet with the Syrian government’s intelligence chief, Ali Mamlouk, per a Reuters article.

      What Americans are actually fighting in Syria with the sponsorship of the U.S. government and where are they?

  7. I think the US/SDF response to the Syrian Army’s incursion showed strength rather than vulnerability.

    Assad watched as the US did nothing when the Iraqi military took back Kirkuk from the Kurds. And he’s taking note of US inaction as Turkey and it’s jihadist FSA attack and beseige Afrin. So for Assad it was perhaps a worthwhile gamble to test US commitment to territory east of the Euphrates liberated by the SDF and its local Arab allies. The SDF may be leftist, as we’re often reminded, but they’re fierce fighters and they’re secular: unlike the Turks, they’ll never allow Salafi-jihadists to regain power in their those territories again.

    For me, US support of the Syrian Kurds is the only bright spot in this administration’s foreign policy. By defending eastern Syria from Assad, we’re not only able to finish off what remains of ISIS in the Euphrates valley, but we’ll deny those hard-won oil and agricultural resources to both Assad and to Sunni fundamentalists supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

    • I have been saying for at least 2, maybe 3 years, that nothing good can come out of getting involved in Syria. For those new to this site, I will repeat myself. We have no vital interest in Syria. Syria is not important to us. Syria is a total mess and provides no value to a foreign intervenor and will cost probably hundreds of billions to reconstruct over a decade or two. Finally, the situation is untenable, Assad is sure to remain in power, we have no legal justification for being there, and there are so many competing factions that everyone involved has some blood on their hands. As longtime correspondent Robert Fisk once said about the Middle East in general, there is no right and wrong, only different degrees of wrong. While the Kurds will suffer, it is impossible for them to have their own state without causing great disruption to Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, and at least two of those are our putative allies. None of those states will agree to carving out a separate Kurdistan. The Kurds are not always pure, either, having been involved in morally dodgy activities in the past (see the Armenian genocide). The only smart course for the US is to withdraw from Syria.

  8. Whether or not he US is the worst actor in Syria,or is merely one of several selfish actors in Syria, we inch closer and and closer to the point of one NATO member’s armed forces killing units of another NATO member’s armed forces.

    It’s possible that this milestone may not happen in Syria in the days and weeks to come, or that one or both parties will seek to minimize and deny such an event if it does occur.

    Nevertheless, it is still an important milestone in world history if it does occur, units of one NATO member’s armed forces killing units of another NATO member’s armed forces.

    • Another important milestone – if it does occur is Americans and Russians fighting each other.

      It occurred when the USSR had surface-to-air missile batteries in Hanoi in 1972 shoot down U.S. Air Force bombers and their airmen manning those batteries had sustained casualties. Eleven Soviet armed forces personnel were killed in action in North Vietnam.

  9. Tactics dictate that an attacking army be at a 3 to 1 ratio to defenders. 500 troops in not much when the defenders have so many force multipliers. The US DoD is much better suited to take on this type of ‘modern’ army. No matter the morals that attack was a stupid bad idea.

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