US-backed fight­ers set red line for As­sad in Syria’s east


BEIRUT: US-backed Syr­ian mili­tias will not let regime forces cross the Euphrates River in their bid to re­cover east­ern Syria, set­ting a red line for Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad as both sides con­verge on Daesh in Deir Ez­zor, their com­man­der said.

Mili­tia Com­man­der Abu Khawla said a civil­ian ad­min­is­tra­tion would be set up to run ar­eas of Deir Ez­zor prov­ince be­ing cap­tured from Daesh by his fight­ers, in­clud­ing its oil fields. The Syr­ian regime was “not fit to lead and rule the peo­ple,” he said.

The Deir Ez­zor mil­i­tary coun­cil, fight­ing as part of the US-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), has ad­vanced to­ward Deir Ez­zor from the east­ern side of the Euphrates River since launch­ing an of­fen­sive into the prov­ince a week ago.

Regime forces, sup­ported by the Rus­sian air force and Iran-backed mili­tias, have si­mul­ta­ne­ously ad­vanced into Deir Ez­zor from the west. Last week, they broke a Daesh siege of the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal, Deir Ez­zor city, which sits on the west­ern bank of the river.

Deir Ez­zor prov­ince is Daesh’s last ma­jor foothold in Syria and Iraq. Rich in oil, it is bi­sected by the Euphrates River and abuts Iraq.

The Rus­sian- and US-backed cam­paigns against Daesh in Syria have mostly stayed out of each other’s way as the sides seek to avoid con­flict, with the Euphrates of­ten act­ing as a di­vid­ing line be­tween the sides. Talks have been un­der­way to ex­tend a for­mal de­mar­ca­tion line that has sep­a­rated the cam­paigns, of­fi­cials have said.

Abu Khawla warned regime forces and their mili­tia al­lies against fir­ing across the river as his fight­ers close in — some­thing he said had hap­pened in re­cent days.

“Now we have 3 km be­tween us and the east­ern river­bank, once our forces reach the area, any shot fired into that area we will con­sider an at­tack on the mil­i­tary coun­cil,” he said.

“We have no­ti­fied the regime and Rus­sia that we are com­ing to the Euphrates river­bank, and they can see our forces ad­vanc­ing,” he said. “We do not al­low the regime or its mili­tias to cross to the east­ern river­bank.

“Ev­ery vil­lage around the east­ern river­bank of the Euphrates River un­til the Iraqi-Syr­ian bor­der is a goal for our forces,” he said. “We are mov­ing force­fully and quickly. We do not have a time­line, but we hope soon to free the en­tire east­ern bank.”

Re­flect­ing the de­mar­ca­tion line, the US-led coali­tion said on Thurs­day the SDF was not plan­ning to en­ter Deir Ez­zor city.

But while the city was not an SDF tar­get, Abu Khawla did not rule out the pos­si­bil­ity that it may be­come one, say­ing peo­ple in the city wanted to be lib­er­ated from “the regime and Daesh at the same time.”

But “right now, we have a sched­ule that we’re fol­low­ing which is the lib­er­a­tion of the east­ern river­banks of the Euphrates,” he said.

He said Daesh had “shown fierce re­sis­tance” when SDF fight­ers en­tered the out­skirts of Deir Ez­zor on the east­ern bank of the Euphrates. “The bat­tles are con­tin­u­ous,” he said.

Abu Khawla, who is in his early 30s, said 10,000 fight­ers were tak­ing part in the Deir Ez­zor cam­paign, the bulk of them mem­bers of Arab tribes from east­ern Syria. The cam­paign is sup­ported by the Kur­dish mili­tia that dom­i­nates the SDF.

“All our sol­diers’ train­ing (is) in the coali­tion train­ing camps, they over­see our train­ing and our ar­ma­ment,” he said.

Abu Khawla was a mem­ber of the Free Syr­ian Army in Deir Ez­zor un­til Daesh took over most of the prov­ince in 2014 at the height of its ex­pan­sion in Syria and Iraq. He fled to Turkey be­fore re­turn­ing to Syria and join­ing the SDF.

“Now we are set­ting up a civil coun­cil par­al­lel to the mil­i­tary coun­cil of Deir Ez­zor, and this civil­ian coun­cil will run all ar­eas freed from (Daesh),” he said.

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