U.S. makes pro­posal to Rus­sia for man­ag­ing Syria bat­tle­field

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - NATION & WORLD - By Robert Burns Associated Press

WASH­ING­TON — The United States has pro­posed to Rus­sia a plan for man­ag­ing an in­creas­ingly com­plex bat­tle­field in Syria’s main oil-pro­duc­ing re­gion, where U.S.-backed forces fight­ing Is­lamic ex­trem­ists are in con­flict with Rus­sianSyr­ian forces.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dun­ford de­clined to de­scribe the pro­posal in de­tail, but said the Rus­sian mil­i­tary is ea­ger to find ways to avoid an armed U.S.-Rus­sian con­flict in the area around Deir el-Zour on the Euphrates River.

The U.S. sees that area, from Deir el-Zour down the Euphrates River Val­ley to al-Qaim on the Iraqi side of the bor­der, as the next ma­jor bat­tle­ground in the evolv­ing coali­tion cam­paign to de­stroy the Is­lamic State group.

“We have a pro­posal that we’re work­ing on with the Rus­sians right now,” Dun­ford said at a news con­fer­ence with De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis. “I won’t share the de­tails, but my sense is that the Rus­sians are as en­thu­si­as­tic as we are to de-con­flict op­er­a­tions and en­sure that we con­tinue to take the cam­paign to ISIS and en­sure the safety of our per­son­nel.”

Asked whether the pro­posal to Rus­sia would ad­dress the prob­lem of a Syr­ian army pres­ence in Deir el-Zour, Dun­ford said, “It will. It will. And we’ve talked about that as a spe­cific area that re­quires” avoid­ing U.S.-Rus­sian con­flict.

Rus­sia’s sup­port for the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment is a com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor in the bat­tle to rid Syria of the Is­lamic State, also known as ISIS. That was demon­strated Thurs­day when the U.S. bombed a con­tin­gent of pro-Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces in­south­east­ernSyria that Mat­tis said were ad­vanc­ing in a threat­en­ing way to­ward a rebel camp near the Jor­da­nian bor­der where U.S. ad­vis­ers were present.

Mat­tis told re­porters those tar­geted were “Ira­nian-di­rected forces.”

Rus­sia on Fri­day de­nounced theU.S. airstrike.

“What­ever the rea­son for the U.S. strike was, it was il­le­git­i­mate and marked an­other fla­grant vi­o­la­tion of Syria’s sovereignty,” Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov said in Cyprus.

Three years into Amer­ica’s cam­paign, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is push­ing for an ac­cel­er­ated ef­fort to de­stroy Is­lamic State. He hasn’t yet an­nounced re­sults of a strat­egy re­view he or­dered from the Pen­tagon in late Jan­uary. But Mat­tis said Fri­day that Trump ap­proved a rec­om­men­da­tion for a “tac­ti­cal shift” to­ward sur­round­ing ISIS mil­i­tants in their strongholds, such as the city of Raqqa, so that for­eign fight­ers can­not re­turn to their home coun­tries.

“By tak­ing the time up front to sur­round th­ese lo­ca­tions, in­stead of sim­ply shov­ing them from one to an­other and ac­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing them as they fall back we now take the time to sur­round them,” Mat­tis said. “And why dowe do it? Be­cause the for­eign fight­ers are the strate­gic threat should they re­turn home to Tu­nis, to Kuala Lumpur, to Paris, to Detroit, wher­ever. Those for­eign fight­ers are a threat. So by tak­ing the time to de-con­flict, to sur­round and then at­tack, we carry out the an­ni­hi­la­tion cam­paign so we don’t sim­ply trans­plant this prob­lem from one lo­ca­tion to an­other.”

Much fight­ing re­mains to fully ex­pel Is­lamic State from Mo­sul in north­ern Iraq, and the bat­tle for Raqqa has barely be­gun.

But the fol­low-on bat­tle lines are al­ready clear. They will be drawn from Deir el-Zour, which has come un­der in­creas­ingU.S. ae­rial bom­bard­ment, to the western Iraqi city of al-Qaim. The Pen­tagon refers to this area as the Mid­dle Euphrates River Val­ley. Is­lamic State lead­ers and op­er­a­tives have grav­i­tated there in ap­par­ent an­tic­i­pa­tion of los­ingMo­sul and Raqqa.

The coali­tion bombed an ISIS fight­ing unit and an Is­lamic State ve­hi­cle near Deir el-Zour on Thurs­day. U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand on Fri­day also men­tioned five airstrikes tar­get­ing Is­lamic State oil in­fra­struc­ture near Abu Ka­mal, the Syr­ian city across the bor­der from Iraq’s al-Qaim.

Post-Mo­sul and postRaqqa, the intent will be to mil­i­tar­ily squeeze this stretch of ter­ri­tory from each end, U.S. of­fi­cials said.

SHAWN THEW/EPA

Gen. Joseph Dun­ford, left, and De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis brief re­porters Fri­day on the bat­tle against ISIS.

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