Syria: US and Russian special forces fight a shadow war


Cassandra Sully | Middle East

Proxy war

The war in Syria is coming to an end. The Syrian government has clung to power since the civil war officially began during the Arab Spring in 2011. Now, it appears that it will be the ultimate victor in a conflict that has killed more than 470,000 people.

What originally began as anti-government protests soon morphed into a conflict that saw the rise of the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL). It has become a proxy war between Russia which backed President Bashaar al-Assad’s government forces, and the United States which has backed ‘moderate’ rebel groups known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in an effort to topple al-Assad as well as combat the rise of ISIL and other fundamentalist groups across the country.

Complicating matters further has been the assistance by Iran to the Syrian government of arms, fighters and supplies, as well as the alleged ties of the gulf states to the various fundamentalist Sunni groups.

The question then, is what happens as the ISIL buffer between the various proxy forces finally collapses? What happens when these competing groups enter the war’s end game, and face off over who will ultimately control a peace-time Syria?

The brief:

  • Russia has announced that it will deploy their Special Forces, the Spetznaz, to Syria in support of the Syrian government.
  • Russia backs the Syrian government’s forces while the United States has trained and provided logistical support to a loose coalition of rebels known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
  • Both sides have increasingly come into combat as their proxy forces push hard for territory as the war draws to a close.

U.S. Special forces on the march, source: wikicommons

The quiet war

“Our special forces units are operating in Syria. They provide additional reconnaissance for Russian airstrikes, carry out aircraft target-designation in remote areas, and carry out other special tasks” – Col. Gen. Alexander Dvornikov

With the war winding down, Russian and American Special forces are increasingly coming into contact with one another as their competing proxy forces scramble to secure territory.

The United States says it has around 500 troops in northern and eastern Syria advising the SDF. On the Russian side, the exact number of Special forces and ‘advisors’ remains unknown. What is clear is that as the war has dragged on, both sides have increasingly deployed front-line units to fight on the battlefield. Officially, both sides are united in fighting against ISIL and its allied fundamentalist groups, however many speculate that the fighting is focused on securing a stronger bargaining position in the eventual peace talks.

US forces have been attacked by Russian warplanes in the past, and recently a US Navy fighter jet shot down a Syrian war plane without communicating the action to Russia as per the agreed procedure. Both the US and Russia have committed air-assets to the region, and now with their special forces on the front line the risk of further escalation or miscalculation are higher than ever.

Syrian Civil War map 23 09.PNG
Syrian Civil war’s battlelines as of 23/09. US backed SDF/Kurds in yellow, ISIL in black, Government forces in red and various rebel groups in green. Source.

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What’s next?

The question of Syria’s future is a complicated one. Russia has directly threatened to retaliate against US forces in Syria targeting areas occupied by American units and US backed militias if its troops came under fire. And the US has shown that it will do whatever it deems necessary to defend its soldiers on the ground.

What is clear is that more fighting is to come, and a war that has spanned more than six years remains as uncertain as ever.

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