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March 11, 2020 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1504

Assad Regime Encourages Attacks On U.S. Forces In Northern Syria: They Can Choose To Leave On Their Own Feet, Or In Coffins

March 11, 2020 | By O. Peri
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1504


 

Introduction

In recent weeks, there have been direct and deadly clashes in northern Syria between Syrian government forces and the Turkish armed forces. The fighting broke out after Assad’s forces, aided by Russia and Iran-backed militias,  recaptured dozens of towns and villages in the rural areas west and northwest of Aleppo, which for many years had been under the control of Syrian rebels supported by Turkey and the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham militia. On February 17, 2020, the Syrian regime even announced the reopening of the Damascus-Aleppo highway, and also of the Aleppo International Airport, which had been closed for the past eight years.[1]

Turkey, which as stated supports the armed Syrian opposition factions, demanded that the Syrian regime withdraw from the areas it had captured, threatening to employ military force.[2] The Syrian regime retorted that it is entitled to oppose the Turkish "occupation" of Syrian land.[3] The verbal attacks escalated to direct military clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces, resulting in extensive fatalities on both sides. For example, on February 28 the Syrian regime killed 33 Turkish soldiers in Idlib,[4] triggering a Turkish counterattack which, according to Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, killed 309 Syrian troops.[5] On March 5 the two countries agreed on a ceasefire in Idlib, following which there was a lull in the hostilities, but many Syrian elements assess that the ceasefire will be short-lived.[6]

The Assad regime blames not only Turkey but also the U.S. for the hostilities between the two countries, claiming that the U.S. is pushing Turkey toward an escalation in order to preserve its own interests in Syria. These accusations have been accompanied by an escalation of clashes in areas where U.S. forces are present: in northeast Syria and in the Al-Tanf area, near the Syria-Jordan-Iraq border junction. This escalation takes the form of provocations of the U.S. forces and the Syrian forces they support, such as blocking their way and firing on them, which in one case led to the wounding of an American soldier. Syrian elements have also threatened to increase the "popular resistance" against the U.S. forces in the country.

It should be noted that this is not the first time that Syrian regime circles have threatened to use force against the U.S. military presence in Syria.[7]


Cartoon in Syrian government daily: Syrian and Iraqi soldiers saw at the legs of the U.S. which are planted in their territory (Source: Teshreen, Syria, February 20, 2020)

This report reviews the recent clashes between Syrian and U.S. forces, and the threats of the Syrian regime against the U.S. and Turkey:

Attacks On U.S., U.S.-Backed Forces

Several clashes between U.S. and Syrian forces have been reported recently. On March 8, 2020, the Syrian regime’s official news agency reported that residents of the Al-Kuzaliya village in the northern Al-Hasakah Governorate, aided by Syrian army troops, had blocked a convoy of seven U.S. armored vehicles from entering the village. According to the report, the villagers threw rocks at the vehicles and forced them to retreat.[8] A Syrian opposition website noted that plainclothes operatives of the Syrian National Defense militia, which is affiliated with Iran, had also participated in the incident, and that the Americans  did not retaliate because they assumed that they were facing civilians.[9] Another report on March 8 stated that residents of Rmelan Al-Basha in Al-Hasakah Governorate threw rocks at American vehicles passing by their village.[10]


Syrian army troops and residents from Al-Kuzaliya block U.S. convoy from entering their village (Source: Sana.sy, March 8, 2020)

Two days previously, on March 6, the London-based Al-Arabi Al-Jadid daily reported that five rockets had hit the Saida oil facility in the city of Al-Qahtaniyah in northeastern Syria, where U.S. forces are stationed, causing the forces to go on alert and send up helicopters to circle over the city. A similar attack was reportedly launched at the U.S. base in Rmelan. No casualties were reported in either attack; the identity of the attackers is unknown, but they were presumably affiliated with the Syrian regime.[11]

On February 16, the Syrian opposition faction Maghaweir Thowra (the Revolutionary Commando Army), which is supported by the U.S.-led Global Coalition against Terror and operates in the Al-Tanf area, where the U.S. base is located, reported that Syrian regime forces and allied militias had entered the 55-kilometer area around the base, designated by the U.S. as a deconfliction zone, off-limits to the Syrian regime forces and its allies. According to the report, the infiltrating forces fired at Maghaweir Thowra militants, and the latter returned fire, forcing the infiltrators to withdraw and killing several of them.[12] According to the Al Badia 24 news agency, which is identified with the Syrian opposition, the Maghaweir Thowra faction also retaliated by attacking a Syrian regime position apparently annexed to an Iranian militia which is stationed near the 55-kilometer area.[13] A former member of Maghaweir Thowra claimed that 15 Syrian regime soldiers were killed in the attack and that a tank was damaged.[14]

Another incident took place on February 12 at a Syrian army checkpoint near Khirbat 'Amo village, in the Qamishli area in Al-Hasakah Governorate. According to the Lebanese Al-Akhbar daily, which supports the Syrian regime, the soldiers manning the checkpoint, assisted by local civilians, denied access to a patrol of five U.S. military vehicles. After locals threw stones at the vehicles and shouted anti-U.S. slogans, the U.S. troops opened fire, killing one civilian and injuring two. The villagers, in turn, opened fire on the U.S. patrol, damaging two of the vehicles, and detained the soldiers. The U.S. forces then sent reinforcements to the area, under cover of warplanes and helicopters, which bombed the area to intimidate the locals. According to the report, five vehicles carrying Russian forces arrived on the scene and mediated between the sides, until they agreed that the U.S. troops would be released, on condition that they would avoid entering the village.[15]

A spokesman for the U.S. forces clarified that the Americans had opened fire in response to fire directed at them by unknown elements, and that one soldier sustained a superficial injury while operating equipment.[16]

The Syrian opposition website Euphrates Post likewise reported that the Americans had opened fire in response to being shot at, but claimed that those who had clashed with the U.S. troops were actually plainclothes operatives of the Syrian National Defense militia.[17]

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, it was Russian soldiers stationed in the area who  incited the residents and the Syrian National Defense militiamen to clash with the Americans.[18]


Clashes between Syrians and U.S. forces in the Khirbat 'Amo area in northeastern Syria (Source: Sana.sy, February 12, 2020)

President Assad: "It Is The State's National And Constitutional Duty To Support Any Action Against Any Occupying Power"

As stated, the escalation between the Syrian regime and the U.S. forces comes against the backdrop of the growing tension on the ground between Syrian and Turkish forces. As the forces of the regime and its allies have made increasing gains in the Aleppo and Idlib governorates, Turkey has responded by reinforcing its troops in the area and establishing military outposts. There have been several reports of clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces, with casualties on both sides. The regime also blames the U.S. for the escalation, claiming that it is pushing Turkey to step up its military activity.

For example, in a March 5 interview with the Russia 24 channel, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said: "From a military perspective, [our] priority right now is the Idlib [front], and therefore Erdogan is sending all his forces [there]. This is obviously under the instruction of the Americans. There is no doubt about that, because the liberation of Idlib means that [next] we will liberate the eastern areas [where American forces are stationed]… So they have transferred all their forces [to Idlib] to hinder its liberation, so that we won't turn eastward.” Assad added, "Even if we have not yet launched a war in the eastern area, we are in contact with the civilians [there] and they are deeply enraged and furious about the American occupation… I believe that this rage will gradually grow and that resistance operations against the occupiers will begin. It is the state’s national and constitutional duty to support any action against any occupying power. I believe that, in time, when no members of the public stand by the Americans, and the public actually rises up against the American occupation, it will become impossible [for them] to remain… Of course, we are not forgetting the Turks who are occupying northern Syria. If they do not leave following political negotiations, there will be no choice but to force them to leave…"[19]

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Mekdad said that the U.S. "wishes to protect its interests, which are manifested in oil and in [defending] Israel, and it is using Turkey for that purpose."[20] Syrian Parliament Speaker Rami Saleh wrote that "the Americans are inciting Erdogan, but in the final analysis this is not to Turkey's benefit…because any attack on Syrian land will meet with tremendous opposition.”[21]

Tribal Leaders: The Khirbat 'Amo Incident Was "The First Spark Of The Resistance Against The American Occupation Forces"

Following the February 12, 2020 incident in Khirbat 'Amo village, several Syrian elements called to continue the resistance against the U.S. forces. For example, Al-Hasakah governor Jaiz Al-Musa, in whose jurisdiction the incident took place, said: "The war against the American aggression and occupation is [fought] by the popular base that opposes them." He added, "Most of the people in Al-Hasakah and its rural area oppose the American presence on Syrian soil, and the popular resistance will emerge from this womb.”[22]

A tribal figure from the Al-Hasakah area said that the "popular resistance" in Khirbat 'Amo proved that "the Syrian people are capable of resisting the American occupation and expelling it from Syria.” He added, “The Americans must learn from what happened in Khirbat 'Amo and withdraw from the Syrian lands, so as to prevent the escalation of popular resistance actions that will compel them to withdraw [anyway], sooner or later."[23]

At a gathering of Arab tribes in Khirbat 'Amo on February 18, several days after the incident, Sheikh 'Abd Al-Razzaq Al-Tayy, leader of the Tayy tribe, described the villagers' actions as "bravery worthy of respect, which is the first spark of the resistance against the American occupation forces." Hamandi Al-Hamandi, a dignitary from the Al-Ghanama tribe, said that "it behooves all the Arab tribes to choose the path of resistance so as to expel the American occupation forces which have looted and stolen the resources of our country and continue to carry out despicable plots to fragment the region in the service of Zionism."[24]

Articles In The Syrian Press: The Americans And The Turks Can Choose How To Leave – On Their Own Feet Or In Coffins

Numerous articles published in the Syrian government and pro-government press slammed Turkey and its president Erdogan, as well as the U.S., some of them in a threatening tone. For example, journalist Wisam Jadid of the pro-regime Al-Watan daily wrote, alluding to the Turkish forces, that "whoever crosses the [Syrian] borders becomes an easy target that may be consumed by fire at any moment."[25]

Reem Saleh, a columnist with the Syrian Al-Thawra daily, responded to Erdogan's threats to attack in Syria, writing: "The statements of [Erdogan], the defender of [Jabhat] Al-Nusra and ISIS, that if his soldiers are attacked he will claim the legitimate right of [self-]defense, are ridiculous. What [right of self-]defense does he imagine he has, when he is invading and occupying [Syrian soil], and when his presence on Syrian land violates every international convention? What troops is he boasting about, when his troops are nothing but an occupying force? The Syrian state and armed forces are entitled to take any measure to liberate Syria's soil of the filth [of the Turkish forces] and their mercenary apparatuses on the ground. Whoever plays with fire ends up getting burned, especially whoever starts the fire [in the first place]."[26] 

Other articles clarified that the Turkish and U.S. military presence in Syria has no future. Conspicuous among them was a February 17 article by Al-Thawra chief editor 'Ali Nasrallah, who wrote: "Sooner or later, the mercenaries in the areas where the occupying U.S. forces are deployed will meet the same fate as the [Turkish] mercenaries in Idlib and Aleppo. The invading American forces will [also] fare no better than the gangs of the Erdogan regime's army. Whether or not [Erdogan] realizes the implications of the dirty game played by the U.S., NATO and Israel… neither the takfiri [i.e., extremist] Muslim Brotherhood [member, Erdogan], nor [America,] the occupier of [our] gas fields here or in the Syrian Jazirah [northeastern Syria], have any place [in this country]. Aleppo is celebrating [its] great victory, and the Syrians are celebrating the reopening of the Aleppo-Damascus highway and the complete victories of their army in Aleppo. Soon they will also celebrate the return of Idlib, free of the filth of the takfiris. The West and the U.S. will not be able to ruin their joy over the great accomplishment, which will be complete once the [Americans] are expelled from Al-Tanf and its environs. We are [now] at the height of a new phase, in which we will end the years of war and aggression with a resounding victory…"[27] 

In another article, from February 21, Al-Thawra editor Nasrallah addressed the U.S. and Turkey, saying: "Collect your dead and gear.  Your only option is to withdraw – on your own feet, disappointed, [or else] carried in wooden boxes [i.e., coffins]." [28]

Al-Thawra columnist Faten Hassan 'Adla wrote about the escalating popular resistance against the U.S. forces in Syria: "The sight of the villagers of Al-Kuzaliya standing up to a convoy of American armored vehicles… and forcing them to leave is nothing but another impressive scene of Syrian patriotism, [of civilians] confronting the American terror in the Syrian Jazirah and in every other part of Syria where [America] and its mercenaries are present. It is another in a series of scenes and messages conveyed to the terror-supporting countries, and it heralds… other facts [that will materialize] very soon, [such as] the expulsion of the American occupation. This is especially because the popular resistance against this occupation is growing, along with the level of national cooperation and unity. The Al-Kuzaliya [villagers'] confrontation of the American armored vehicles, with the help of the [Syrian] army, is another slap in the face delivered to the Americans in less than a month… This recurring incident, and this genuine national scene, prove that there is no room [in Syria] for the Americans and others, and that the great ambitions of [President] Trump and his terrorist government, who covet the oil in the [Syrian] Jazirah, will not go according to his calculations, his looting plans and his false slogans… For the sponsors of terror will surely be defeated and be expelled from Syria…"[29]  

 

* O. Peri is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] Al-Watan (Syria), February 17, 2020; sana.sy, February 19, 22, 2020.

[2] Aa.com.tr/ar, February 18, 2020; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 19, 2020.

[3] Sana.sy, February 27, 2020.

[4] Aa.com.tr/ar, February 28, 2020.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 29, 2020; it should be noted that other reports put the number of Syrian dead at 16, raialyoum, February 28, 2020.

[6] Alarabiya.net, March 69, 2020; Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), March 9, 2020.

[8] Sana.sy, March 8, 2020.

[9] Stepagency-sy.net, March 8, 2020.

[10] Sana.sy, March 8, 2020.

[11] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), March 6, 2020.

[12] Twitter.com/MaghaweirThowra, February 16, 2020.

[13] Twitter.com/ALBADIA24, February 16, 2020.

[14] Smartnews-agency.com, February 16, 2020.

[15] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 13, 2020.

[16] Twitter.com/oirspox, February 12, 2020.

[17] Euphratespost.net, February 12, 2020.

[18] Syriahr.com, February 15, 2020.

[19] Sana.sy, March 5, 2020.

[20]  Almayadeen.net, February 14, 2020.

[21] Al-Watan (Syria), March 3, 2020.

[22] Al-Watan (Syria), February 13, 2020.

[23] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 13, 2020.

[24] Sana.sy, February 18, 2020.

[25] Al-Watan (Syria), February 10, 2020.

[26] Al-Thawra (Syria), February 5, 2020.

[27] Al-Thawra (Syria), February 17, 2020.

[28] Al-Thawra (Syria), February 21, 2020.

[29] Al-Thawra (Syria), March 10, 2020.

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