Syrian army soldiers preparing for an attack on ISIS in Deir Ezzor. AFP file photo
The United States has once again turned down a Russian suggestion to coordinate counter-Islamic State (ISIS) operations. Washington declined to coordinate with Moscow before, too, due to its indiscriminate bombing across Syria, which has killed hundreds of civilians, as well as its continued support for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
As part of Russia’s latest proposal for military cooperation the country’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that American and Russian air power synchronize their support of the Syrian Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is currently mounting an offensive against the ISIS-occupied province of Raqqa.
US air power has invariably proven much more capable of carrying out more precise targeted strikes against ISIS positions and vehicles. The US bombing campaign against Raqqa has hit specific militant targets to minimize civilian casualties while the Russian bombings have devastated residential areas through what appears to be largely indiscriminant bombing.
While Russian participation in an operation against Raqqa could prove to be counterproductive, and result in an unnecessarily high civilian death toll, there is one place where the US coalition should consider very limited ad-hoc coordination with the Russians in Syria, Deir Ezzor.
The Syrian city is located approximately 140 kilometers southeast of Raqqa and is capital of the province of the same name. ISIS have managed to takeover large parts of it and the only obstacle to their complete domination of the city – which would put them in full control of two Syrian provincial capitals – is a contingent of Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers who have been holding out in the airport and other parts of the city for around two years now.
The humanitarian situation in Deir Ezzor is dire thanks to ISIS’s continued presence, the inability of the UN to truck in humanitarian aid to civilians trapped in that city which resulted in the agency undertaking its first and only humanitarian airdrops in Syria over that city. The Russians have also dropped supplies to the SAA troops in Deir Ezzor in recent months.
If the SDF successfully surround Raqqa from the north, east and west it is possible ISIS could withdraw to Deir Ezzor without putting up a fight for Raqqa. Instead their forces withdrawing southeast to Deir Ezzor could reinforce ISIS militants already in that city and takeover all of Deir Ezzor and make it their new Syrian stronghold. After retaking Raqqa the SDF may not be willing to launch an operation much further south and ISIS could dig-in, secure that city for themselves and live to die another day.
In recognition of the fact that is in nobody’s interest the US and Russia should mildly coordinate a campaign to put further pressure on ISIS in Deir Ezzor. The US could step-up targeted air and drone strikes against the group there and the Russians could logistically reinforce the SAA in Deir Ezzor by sending them more heavy weapons. Moscow could possibly even consider embedding some Russian commandos with the SAA in Deir Ezzor. The US coalition could share intelligence with those commandos concerning the ISIS targets they are bombing in the city and possibly even coordinate with them in certain areas to keep the militants dispersed and under pressure.
The US coalition was right not to coordinate with neither Assad nor the Russians. However it is far from the US interests to see the SAA overwhelmed in Deir Ezzor and ISIS secure an alternative stronghold to Raqqa.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.