Rus­sia ac­cused of strike on U.S. part­ners in Syria

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY LOUISA LOVELUCK louisa.loveluck@wash­post.com Zakaria Zakaria in Is­tan­bul con­trib­uted to this re­port.

BEIRUT — The U.S.-led coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic State in Syria said Satur­day that its part­ner forces have been 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 airstrike 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 anti-gov­ern­ment up­ris­ing, bankrolling and later mil­i­tar­ily sup­port­ing Pres­i­dent Bashar alAs­sad’s forces as part of a broader at­tempt to main­tain key al­lies across the re­gion.

In Deir al-Zour, the two mil­i­tary groups 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 cut through the ex­trem­ist group’s ter­ri­tory from the western side, en­ter­ing Deir Ez­zor city and 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 in the prov­ince, sig­nal­ing what ap­peared to be a grow­ing will­ing­ness on the part of Rus­sia to pro­tect its pro-As­sad al­lies as they con­sol­i­date con­trol over the most strate­gic ar­eas.

Al­though the Pen­tagon, SDF, Rus­sia and Syria have agreed on a line of “phys­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion” be­tween their par­al­lel of­fen­sives, tensions have been ris­ing in re­cent days.

“Coali­tion of­fi­cials are avail­able and the de­con­flic­tion line with Rus­sia is open 24 hours per day,” said coali­tion com­man­der Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II in a state­ment Satur­day.

“We put our full ef­forts into pre­vent­ing un­nec­es­sary es­ca­la­tion among forces that share ISIS as our com­mon en­emy,” said Funk, adding that the coali­tion and its part­ners re­tained a right to self-de­fense.

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 airstrikes.

Al­though di­rect clashes are rare, the U.S.-led coali­tion launched strikes in early June against pro-As­sad mili­ti­a­men in south­ern Syria, af­ter they ad­vanced on an out­post hous­ing Amer­i­can spe­cial forces, as well as a con­tin­gent of rebel fight­ers they sup­ported.

On Fri­day, Ahmed Abu Khawla, a lead­ing SDF com­man­der, warned the Syr­ian army and al­lied mili­tia against fir­ing across the Euphrates as his fight­ers closed in — some­thing he said had hap­pened in re­cent days.

“We have no­ti­fied the regime and Rus­sia that we are com­ing to the Euphrates river­bank, and they can see our forces ad­vanc­ing,” he told the Reuters news agency.

In an in­ter­view with Al Ma­nar TV, a chan­nel af­fil­i­ated with the Le­banese Hezbol­lah move­ment, a prom­i­nent As­sad ad­viser in­sisted Fri­day that pro-gov­ern­ment forces re­served the right to at­tack.

“Whether it’s the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, or Daesh or any il­le­git­i­mate for­eign force in the coun­try . . . we will fight and work against them so our land is freed com­pletely from any ag­gres­sor,” she said, us­ing an Ara­bic acro­nym for the Is­lamic State.

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