|US-backed SDF (yellow) are now face to face with Russia-backed SAA (red)|
On Sunday, the Russian defence ministry held the US responsible for the deaths of senior military advisor Lt.-Gen. Valery Asopov and two colonels who were accompanying him who were killed when their position was shelled by Islamic State (IS) forces in the village of Marat east of the Euphrates River. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov described the deaths as ‘the bloody price for two-faced American policy in Syria,’ adding that ‘the American side declares that it is interested in the elimination of IS … but some of its actions show it is doing the opposite and that some political and geopolitical goals are more important for Washington.’ The accusation was unprecedented, and led to a sharp rise in tension between the two sides.
The more damning accusation, in the view of many observers, is Russia’s claim to have evidence supported by photographs of collusion between US forces backing the SDF and IS east of the Euphrates. It also accuses the Americans of being behind the major assault launched last week by Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) from Idlib governorate, which they control, against government positions in Hama, aimed at slowing the eastward advance of Syrian and Russian forces towards Deir az-Zour and the oilfields.
On Tuesday, Russian Defence Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Moscow was still awaiting replies from Washington to questions about ‘whom US Special Forces in Syria are fighting with and against’. He referred to images of former IS positions that had been taken by American Special Forces that showed no sign of fighting or aerial bombardment having taken place, and which lacked the protective defences that would normally be expected, implying collusion between the two sides.
The US has had nothing to say about these charges, or about allegations by Iranian commanders that the US held back from fighting IS in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq and Syria.
One of the triggers of the Syrian crisis was that the government in Damascus turned down proposals to build a pipeline through Syria to carry Qatari gas to Europe. It did so partly at the request of Russia, which feared that the project was aimed at under-cutting its own gas exports to Europe. Now another ‘oil war’ seems to be looming in the east of the country.