by The Ister for The Saker Blog
The billowing wheat fields of Syria once were a staple that kept the people sated through times of struggle. Until the beginning of the war, Syria was a net food exporter, providing grain to neighboring countries and enjoying a healthy supply more than sufficient to feed its population. When the attempted overthrow of Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, the nation collapsed into chaos and food production plummeted. Syria’s borders shrank to a third of their pre-war size as ISIS took over huge swathes of desert, and US-backed Kurdish forces invaded the country’s northeast under the cover of fighting terrorism.
Russia’s intervention in 2015 secured the highly populated coastal regions, finally bringing an end to the jihadist occupation of Aleppo and removing ISIS from the country’s center. The coastal cities were hardened with the creation of permanent Russian bases in Khmeimim and Tartus, and Bashar al-Assad’s secular government was kept in power. The strategically significant northeast however, was lost.
The governorate of Deir Ezzor in northeastern Syria splits evenly across the Euphrates River, and is the site of an emerging fault line between the Empire and Resistance Axis. On the West bank of the Euphrates, Bashar al-Assad’s government rules, while the East is occupied by Kurdish and American forces. Unable to achieve complete regime change, the Empire has shifted gears and now is waging a war primarily based on starvation. Limiting the flow of food and energy in the country may not even succeed in directly impeding military operations, but it can effectively turn Syria into a third world country by grinding civilian life to a halt and starving the population.
Syria’s occupied northeast produces 60% of the country’s wheat and 95% of the country’s oil: 400,000 barrels per day of oil production has been lost due to the Kurdish invasion. The formerly oil-rich nation now pumps a mere 20,000 bpd and relies on Iranian tankers to import energy. These tankers are increasingly intercepted by Western powers as part of this war of starvation. Additionally, in the last two years five separate sanctions bills have been passed in Washington, targeting the country’s oil and grain trade.
Energy is not just needed for the tanks and planes of Assad’s military, it is required to power the factories, agricultural operations, businesses, and homes of the Syrian people. Strangling the flow of energy and food into Syria has created spillover effects that have crippled the nation’s economy. With no power for tractors to cultivate wheat or trucks to ship food, the remaining agricultural resources have become severely underutilized and the nation is at risk of famine.
This is nothing new. Just recall what US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said when confronted with the fact that over half a million Iraqi children had died of starvation due to sanctions:
We think the price is worth it
Any price is “worth it” because Iraq, Syria, and Iran have been targeted for destruction for decades, part of the Empire’s longstanding plan to conquer all of Central Asia. We see the antecedents of such a foreign policy in the Wolfowitz Doctrine, the “Clean Break” white paper, and General Wesley Clark’s confession that these nations were slated for regime change well before whichever casus belli that prompted American intervention was manufactured. In addition to the territorial agenda, control of the planet’s oil resources upholds the phenomenon of petrodollar recycling, defending the dollar’s status as world reserve currency.
Accordingly, the Empire has no plans to leave northeast Syria. While the media spun up a narrative about Trump “abandoning the Kurds,” nothing could be further from the truth. The Trump administration gave drilling approval in the region to a little known oil company called Delta Crescent Energy LLC. One of the partners at this firm named James Reese is an ex Delta Force agent who served as a commander and operations officer in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Other partners include international oil executives and diplomats. These players will collaborate with the Kurds to pump oil through Syria and Iraq while fulfilling Washington’s agenda of denying the Syrian civilization the resources needed for survival.
So while imperial and resistance forces patrol either side of the Euphrates, we can see the new front in the northeast as a microcosm of what will come as a hawkish administration takes the helm in Washington.
On Aug 23 2020, Russian major general Vyacheslav Gladkikh was assassinated by IED while in Deir Ezzor governorate, the highest ranking soldier to be killed in the war. Immediately prior to his death, the general was coordinating with local Arab militiamen, giving us a window into the strategy of the Resistance Axis in the region. It has been the goal of Assad and the Russians to reintegrate this crucial territory by allying with the Arab majority in the governorate, who are being oppressed by the ruling Kurdish minority. Arab protests and discontent with the corrupt SDF leadership have accelerated, so while Western media blames General Gladkikh’s assassination on ISIS we can see other clear beneficiaries.
Speaking of ISIS, the way northeast Syria has evolved begs the question: what was the purpose of ISIS? Let us first review the multiple channels of American support:
1. Manpower: Immediately after the invasion of Iraq, America unilaterally disbanded the Iraqi army without pay, despite warnings that this would create a pool of manpower for terrorism. Many of these soldiers later filled the ranks of ISIS
2. Supply abandonment: M1A1 Abrams tanks, LAVs, and 2,300 Hummers were left conveniently unguarded in lots for ISIS to acquire during its rise
3. Direct airdrop: In Oct 2014, the US was caught airdropping weapons and ammunition directly to ISIS fighters and passed it off as an accident
4. Osmosis: Cash, supplies, and weaponry delivered to “vetted” rebel groups through the CIA’s Timber Sycamore program often ended up directly in ISIS hands. In one case a UN audit determined that TOW missiles were controlled by ISIS less than two months after leaving an American production line
5. Side switching: When ISIS began to fall many of its fighters simply left and joined other US-aligned groups such as the FSA and SDF
6. US ally funding: Leaked Clinton emails explicitly stated that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were providing direct financing
What of the strategic importance of ISIS? At its territorial height, the Islamic State was essentially a band down the center of Syria that separated Assad’s coastal strongholds from the oil and farmland necessary to the nation’s functioning. It also fulfilled the important role of impeding Iranian access to the region, one of the reasons for which Qasem Soleimani led Shi’ite brigades against ISIS to open up corridors of support for Syria and Lebanon.
And of course we cannot forget that the US had pockets of soldiers in ISIS territory throughout the entire conflict, monitoring the situation. The outcome in the Syrian war was rigged from the beginning, as even in the event that Assad managed to defeat ISIS and avoid regime change, the Empire would never allow him to achieve full territorial reintegration.
As soon as Russia began to reverse the tide in the conflict, the US swooped in to “liberate” the oil fields. American anti-ISIS bombings were greatly exagerrated (at one point PBS even took Russian bombing footage and labeled it as American). Furthermore these operations were concentrated in the northeast, while Syrians, Iraqis, Russians, and Iranians were allowed to do the leg work on the ground against ISIS. Essentially, Assad reclaimed infertile desert terrain at an enormous human cost and just as his forces reached Deir Ezzor the Empire took the resource-rich northeast and bombed any Syrian crossing of the Euphrates.
Merely one day after the inauguration of the Biden administration in Washington, the US began transferring hundreds of soldiers from Iraq to northeastern Syria in order to harden the imperial presence. Even under the Trump administration a ninth US army base in Deir Ezzor was commissioned in October, directly facing Syrian military positions west of the Euphrates. The new cabinet is stacked with career advocates of regime change, so we can foresee that the border in northeast Syria will be a debut at which the forces of imperialism seek to demonstrate their fanatical commitment to “involvement in the region.”
While unheard of by most Americans, this northern governorate is a litmus test for what is to come in the next four years of foreign policy. Whether it transforms into a frozen conflict zone like Donbass or the site of disastrous great power confrontation, it is a clear sign of the Empire’s unwillingness to “go gentle into that good night.” Though the lines in Deir Ezzor may already be drawn, it appears that a clash in the Idlib region is on the horizon as Turkish forward observation posts are abandoned and rumors circulate of heavy artillery moving to the border.
All eyes remain on Syria as the people bear the cost of a war of starvation and the Empire seeks to avenge its greatest humiliation at the hands of Russia.
The Ister is a researcher of financial markets and geopolitics.