The race between legitimate Syrian government forces and the US-backed SDF umbrella group to control the oil rich Deir ez-Zor province has intensified following the lifting of the blockade by Syrian troops last week and risks turning into direct confrontation.
Last Tuesday, the Syrian military backed by the Russian air force finally broke the IS (Islamic State, formerly ISIS/ISIL) siege of Deir ez-Zor from the west following a cruise missile strike on terrorist positions.
The advance to clear the remaining terrorists progressed at a steady pace, and by Saturday, Syrian government forces smashed the IS blockade of the military airport which for three years had served as the only lifeline to the city.
Following Damascus’ strategic victory, and while its forces continue to squash pockets of IS resistance in the west of the city, the US backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) swiftly announced on Saturday a separate offensive east of Deir ez-Zor. SDF forces raced to Deir ez-Zor which lies only 140 km south-east of Raqqa, where the US-led coalition is conducting its main offensive against ISIS.
“Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF–OIR) welcomes the commencement of their offensive to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in the Khabur River Valley, dubbed ‘Operation Jazeera Storm,’ north of Dayr Az Zawr (Deir ez-Zor) in eastern Syria,” the Pentagon said in a statement Saturday. It added that the operation will be run by the Deir Ez-zor Military Coalition.
The Pentagon confirmed that US-led coalition forces will support the mainly Kurdish militia in the “Khabur River Valley offensive” as part of the advice and assist mission. The US-coalition also said that it will offer the SDF equipment, intelligence and logistics support, in addition to “precision fires and battlefield advice.”
“It’s going to be a race,” former Pentagon official Michael Maloof told RT. “It is going to be a race because you’ve got the Syrian army with Russian assistance coming in from the West and you have the United States coming in from the north and the East.”
On Sunday, spokesman for the CJTF–OIR, Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, said the SDF has made “significant gains into the Khabur River Valley,” capturing roughly 250 km2 since launching its Operation Jazeera Storm offensive. The Khabur River runs south through Deir ez-Zor province into the Euphrates River, which is about 35 kilometers east of the provincial capital.
According to reports, the SDF was just a few kilometers across the river from Deir Ez-zor city. The coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters, allegedly advanced from the northeast, reportedly capturing the 113th Brigade Base and parts of the Al-Salihiyah District, Almasdar news noted in their report.
Meanwhile Monday, the Syrian army continued with its successes against IS fighters in the west near the airport, “liberating the 17th Hills that are located just southwest of the Liwaa Tameen Base,” the report added.
According to Almasdar, both forces are apparently aiming to block each other’s path to the city of Albukamal on the Euphrates river which lies near the border with Iraq.
“As we get closer to Deir ez-Zor and you have these forces converge upon one another, the importance of [communication] between the Russians and the coalition, SDF and the regime becomes more important,” Dillon was quoted as saying by Foreign Policy magazine.
“The SDF and regime conduct all their interactions [with Russian side] through the deconfliction channel” Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a defense department spokesperson told Foreign Policy. “We pass messages on about where we’re operating, and they’ll pass on where they’re operating,” he said.
The SDF has meanwhile promised not to attack Syrian government forces.
“We have clear instructions that after Daesh is eliminated, we should not act against the forces of the [Bashar Assad] regime or against the Russian, Iranian forces or the Hezbollah movement, which are allied with it,” SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Sputnik Monday.
As the SDF military offensive to expel IS and secure parts oil rich province continues, tribal figures aligned with SDF have already proposed measures to form their own form of government. Tribal figures on Monday called for “establishing a preparatory committee that will discuss the basis and starting points for a Civil Council for Deir ez-Zor.”
The statement published by SDF’s media office said the consultations would aim to reach a “formulation that will express the aspirations of all our people in Deir ez-Zor.” The statement, however, did not mention if the city council activities would be coordinated with the central government.
Maloof believes the US is intentionally using the Kurds to permanently entrench themselves in the oil rich Syrian province that is bordering Iraq.
“I think the US activity, their initiatives now are calculated. They are meant to try to maintain a US presence in Deir ez-Zor,” Maloof pointed out.
“Even though the Syrian army and the Russian air assistance has basically taken over the place, the United States really wants to maintain that area. They want to occupy it with the help of the Kurds.”
“I think the United States has the intentions of building a base there. The US has political and strategic intentions for that region; aimed principally at trying to maintain influence in neighboring Iraq ultimately.”
“Ultimately the Syrian army needs to reoccupy their own area, their country,” Maloof said “I think there is going to be a need for the United States and Russia to talk about this because this could create even greater conflict on who is going to ultimately occupy Deir ez-Zor and indeed that entire region.”