Speaking at the 15th annual Valdai forum in Sochi, in-between hilarious exchanges about the benefits of Western sanctions on the Russian cheese industry, President Putin made a number of strong statements directed at his ‘Western partners’. These included an announcement that Russia is gradually ‘de-dollarizing’ its economy for security reasons; a droll warning that, should the worst come to pass and nuclear war break out, at least Russians would go to heaven as martyrs whereas her enemies would drop dead without time to repent; and a reminder that Russia has surpassed its competitors, for the foreseeable future, in hypersonic missiles. Far less publicized was his revelation about a recent incident involving ISIS in the Deir ez-Zor region of eastern Syria:
“We now see what is happening on the left bank of the Euphrates River, our colleagues know that. This territory is under the protection of our American partners, they rely there on the Kurdish armed forces. But they obviously did not work it through, members of Daesh remained in several settlements,” Putin said at the annual Valdai Discussion Club meeting in Sochi.
The president further stressed that Daesh had recently started expanding its presence, taking 130 families hostage, which is nearly 700 people, including US and European nationals, in part of Syria controlled by US-backed forces.
“They [terrorists] put forward ultimatums and certain demands, and warned that if these ultimatums are not followed up to, they will be gunning down 10 people everyday. The day before yesterday they executed ten people,” Putin stressed.
“Our information shows that several citizens of the United States and [some] European countries were also taken hostage [by Daesh],” Putin added.
You can listen to Putin describe this issue as a disaster, about which Western governments are keeping quiet, in this video, starting from 4:46. The reason they do not wish to talk about it is, of course, that it is not only an embarrassment for US coalition forces, but that it highlights their transparent intention to prevent the stabilization and reconstruction of war-torn Syria.
Major-General Vladimir Savchenko, from the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria, has provided details of the abduction. On Saturday 13 October, ISIS launched an assault on El Bahra refugee camp in Deir ez-Zor – which is controlled by the Kurdish militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – taking hundreds of people to the town of Hajin on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river, where ISIS inexplicably retains a 20km strip of land between that settlement and al-Susa. Savchenko pointed out that as a result of “inaction of the US-backed armed units… The US-led coalition and the Pentagon-controlled Kurdish forces continue to imitate [sic; simulate] the fight against Islamic State in the south of Deir ez-Zor province,” without making actual steps to eradicate the terrorists.
A Russian military-diplomatic source – presumably Savchenko himself, or someone close to him – explained that the SDF was trying to launch an offensive on ISIS with the support of the US coalition, but it failed due to multiple mistakes made by the US military coordinating the operation. Meanwhile, ISIS attacked the refugee camp. Adding to the mess, two US-led coalition F-15 jets bombed Kurdish forces ‘by mistake’, killing six, wounding 15 and allowing ISIS to gain ground. While this last incident appears to have taken place days after the kidnapping of the refugees, it is significant that it happened near the town of Hajin, where the hostages were taken. A Russian news outlet reported that a number of American soldiers and SDF militants were kidnapped by ISIS – were these the ones Putin was talking about? Alternatively, were American and European aid workers at the camp when it was attacked?
Are these example of extraordinary incompetence, the continuation of a malicious strategy to perpetuate the conflict in Syria, or some combination of both? If the US military has been thus far reluctant to finish off the ISIS pocket within its ‘sphere of influence’ on the Euphrates, now it has a convenient excuse not to do so due to ‘700 human shields’. The source spelled out the obvious: “The imitation of fight against terrorists in this region of Syria has already lasted more than six months and is used by Washington to justify its illegal presence in this country.”
While Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the US-led Operation ‘Inherent Resolve’, acknowledged that the F-15 ‘friendly-fire’ event was under investigation, and Pentagon spokesman Commander Sean Robertson admitted to an attack on the camp near Deir ez-Zor, the latter also issued a carefully-worded denial (of sorts) regarding the hostage situation: “We have no information supporting the large number of hostages alleged by President Putin and we are skeptical of its accuracy. We are also unaware of any U.S. nationals located in that camp.” Notice that the point in question is “the large number of hostages” and whether any of them were American. Does that mean that there is indeed a hostage situation, just not with as many of 700 of them? Interestingly, the anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), based on the UK (and run by a single man, Rami Abdulrahman, who claims to have contacts on the ground in Syria), declared that the hostage crisis was real – except that the number of people kidnapped was 250, including 90 women and children. Thus, the US military will not deny the situation unequivocally, and even those supposed to be on their side have at least partly confirmed the information.
Perhaps the US military is trying to fix or cover up this disaster, and is doing so in the only way it knows how to fix things: by bombing hard and indiscriminately. On the same day the hostages were taken, the US-led coalition dropped white phosphorus on several districts of Hajin, where some 10,000 civilians live. This is not at all the first time that American forces have used the incendiary agent on civilian areas – a practice that is explicitly prohibited by the Geneva Convention, and which makes even more hypocritical American and European crocodile tears about the mere suggestion of Assad using chemical weapons the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has verified his forces no longer have.
Later, on 19-20 October, American ‘coalition’ bombs killed up to 62 civilians in the villages of al-Suseh and al-Bubadran in the same region. According to SOHR, only three terrorists died. None of this has stopped ISIS from going on the offensive in the area.
A Strategy of Spitefulness
The US military believes many top ISIS leaders have fled to Hajin, and at some point the group’s founder, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was rumoured to be in the area. No doubt it is the seat of an important ISIS command center, as it was this town, together with Abu Kamal, that was targeted by the missiles launched by Iran as ‘retaliation’ for the September 22 terror attack during a military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz, in which 29 people were killed.
On August 14, Major-General Felix Gedney, British deputy commander for strategy and support of the coalition, stated that only 1,000 ISIS fighters remained in the Euphrates valley. Yet last Thursday, Col. Ryan increased the figure to 1,500 – 2,000, while another anglophone source speaks of 5,000. Either ISIS has grown stronger in the area in spite of F.UK.US airstrikes, or Western sources are simply manipulating the numbers as it suits them. Most likely, the contradicting figures are the product of arguing both that ‘America eliminated ISIS’ and that America is still needed on the ground because ISIS remains strong. ‘Dynamic narratives’ – aka, speaking out of both sides of your mouth – are all-important in a hybrid information war, especially when you’re losing.
But there is more to Hajin, and to the Euphrates valley and the Deir ez-Zor region in general. The map below illustrates the situation in 2015-2016, when Russia was just stepping into the scene, and when ISIS could steal Syria’s oil wells and refineries largely undisturbed and smuggle it across the border into Turkey.
Notice that ISIS happened to concentrate along the Euphrates river, specifically in Deir ez-Zor, where most of Syria’s oil fields are located. While the area remains in chaos, Syria will not be in a position to exploit its natural resources and rebuild. Recent comments by US Air Force Brigadier-General Leah Lauderback suggest that this is the whole point – along with obstructing Russian influence and business in the country:
“Great power competition was an objective by Russia [in Syria]… They saw us as a peer, and they wanted to take advantage in any way that they could,” Lauderback stated.
Specifically, Lauderback said in a summary of the anti-Islamic State campaign, Russia has looked into taking oil fields that dot Syria to fund Syria’s recovery and the stabilization of areas hit hard by conflict. “Economically, they wanted to seize oilfields, they wanted bids and contracts to develop Syria for infrastructure in order to stabilize Syria over the long term,” she said.
So the problem, as America sees it, is that Russia gets to profit and Syria gets to stabilize and prosper. No wonder, then, that ISIS is still wreaking havoc right in the middle of the largest oil fields. ‘Losing’ a few hundred hostages are worth it if that postpones America’s defeat in the race for Syrian oil. Last week, NBC reported that the US government is developing a new strategy for war in Syria that would withhold reconstruction aid from areas in which Iranian and Russian forces are present. It would also impose sanctions on Russian and Iranian companies working on reconstruction in Syria. It cannot get any more spiteful than that.
Before becoming president, Donald Trump appeared to be reluctant to perpetuate US involvement in Syria and thus confront Russia. However, once in office, he has on occasion been shown to be uninformed and somewhat naive – in part, no doubt, due to the carefully controlled information he is provided by his advisors – and he has thus been proven manipulable by the ‘Deep State’ agents he professes to be fighting, at least when it comes to issues ‘out there on the frontier’.
For example, it was not until recently that he learned that a large offensive was being prepared on the northwestern region of Idlib and, according to his own declarations, he thinks that it was he who stopped the offensive with his calls for Russia to do so on Twitter. In reality, this was the consequence of an agreement reached between Russia and Turkey in Sochi, which Trump could easily supplant with make-believe because the American media didn’t report on it, so ‘it never happened’. Also, Putin doesn’t use the internet, much less follow Trump – or anyone else – on social media.
Similarly, Trump seems to sincerely believe that America under his command completed the job of ridding Syria of ISIS. Again, the truth is that the credit goes entirely to Syria, Russia and Iran. If Trump had a firm hold of what the US military does and an accurate understanding of the situation, he would do his best to order them to get out of the way and let those three countries sort out the Euphrates valley as they have done elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the US military – or rather, the Military-Industrial complex, which is an important element of the Deep State – has an agenda of its own. Its plan was never to eliminate ISIS, but to use it as a battering ram to topple the Assad government, which explains why US, Saudi and Israeli weapons got into ISIS hands, and why the ‘anti-ISIS Operation Inherent Resolve’ campaign conducted by US-led coalition has been so atrocious at completing its declared mission. Now that the battering ram strategy has failed, the remnants of ISIS are being used as drops of poison in the (oil) wells that require the American antidote. It’s an utterly futile business plan in the long term, but long-term thinking isn’t exactly an American virtue.
Andrés Perezalonso has been a contributing editor for Signs of the Times in both its English and Spanish versions since 2007. He holds a PhD in Politics, an MA in International Studies, a first degree in Communication, and has a professional background in Media Analysis. He thinks that understanding world events is not unlike detective work – paying attention to often ignored details and connections, and thinking outside of the box. He was born and raised in Mexico and currently resides in Europe.