U.S.-backed forces ac­cuse Rus­sia of mount­ing at­tacks

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - WORLD - By Louisa Loveluck Louisa Loveluck is a Wash­ing­ton Post writer.

BEIRUT — The U.S.-led coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic State in Syria said Saturday that its part­ner forces were at­tacked by Rus­sian war­planes, es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions on one of the coun­try’s most com­plex and con­tested bat­tle­fields.

The coali­tion said in a state­ment that an early morn­ing air strike tar­geted po­si­tions used by the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, or SDF, a Kur­dish-dom­i­nated mili­tia backed by Wash­ing­ton, as well as the in­ter­na­tional ad­vis­ers sup­port­ing them in a weeks-old of­fen­sive to dis­lodge Is­lamic State mil­i­tants from the east­ern prov­ince of Deir al-Zour.

As the Is­lamic State loses ter­ri­tory across Syria and Iraq, oil-rich Deir al-Zour has be­come a hub for the group’s se­nior lead­ers.

Stretch­ing along the east­ern bor­der with Iraq, it has also emerged as a geopo­lit­i­cal bat­tle­ground for forces try­ing to sup­port or thwart Ira­nian at­tempts to se­cure sup­ply routes stretch­ing from Beirut to Tehran.

The U.S.-led coali­tion in­ter­vened in Syria and Iraq in 2014 to halt the Is­lamic State’s con­quest across swaths of both coun­tries. Iran and Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment dates back to the early months of the civil war that fol­lowed Syria’s 2011 antigov­ern­ment up­ris­ing, bankrolling and later mil­i­tar­ily sup­port­ing Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s forces.

In Deir al-Zour, the two mil­i­tary groups now find them­selves fight­ing a com­mon en­emy. SDF fight­ers have ad­vanced against Is­lamic State po­si­tions on the east­ern bank of the Euphrates River in re­cent weeks, while forces al­lied with As­sad’s gov­ern­ment have moved through the ex­trem­ist group’s ter­ri­tory from the western side, bring­ing the ri­val coali­tions to within sev­eral miles of each other.

Saturday’s at­tack marks the first time that the U.S.- and Rus­sian-backed forces have clashed di­rectly, sig­nal­ing what ap­peared to be a grow­ing will­ing­ness for Rus­sia to pro­tect its pro-As­sad al­lies as they con­sol­i­date con­trol over the most strate­gic parts of the prov­ince.

Al­though the Pen­tagon, SDF, Rus­sia and Syria have agreed to a line of “phys­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion” be­tween their par­al­lel of­fen­sives, ris­ing ten­sions have raised the specter of open clashes.

The skies over Syria have be­come in­creas­ingly con­gested as the six-year con­flict has dragged on, with war­planes from the coali­tion, the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment and Rus­sia all car­ry­ing out air strikes.

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