Russian jets reportedly struck U.S.-backed forces fighting against the Islamic State in eastern Syria, a sign of growing rivalry in Deir Ezzor where allies of the Syrian government and the opposition are seeking influence after driving out ISIS militants.
The incident on Saturday offered an early demonstration of how difficult it would be for the U.S.-led coalition to fight against ISIS in a city where the Syrian army, backed by Russian air force, has recently pushed to take control.
“Russian munitions impacted a location known to the Russians to contain Syrian Democratic Forces and Coalition advisors. Several SDF fighters were wounded and received medical care as a result of the strike,” the Coalition statement said on Saturday. “Multinational Coalition troops advising and assisting the SDF were present but not wounded as a result of the Russian strike… Coalition forces and partners always retain the right of self-defense.”
The Coalition said the strike occurred at 00:30 GMT (03:30 local time), but did not specify if aircraft carried out the attack.
— OIR Spokesman (@OIRSpox) September 16, 2017
Earlier the SDF said in a statement that its forces were hit by pre-dawn airstrikes in an industrial area east of Deir Ezzor.
“At 3:30 in the morning (16 September 2017), our forces east of the Euphrates were attacked by Russian and Syrian air forces, targeting our units in the industrial zone, wounding six of our fighters,” the SDF said.
The strike occurred in the Al Salhiyah industrial area northeast of Deir Ezzor city, about 7km (4 miles) from the Euphrates river. Ahmed Abu Khawla, the commander of the SDF’s Deir Ez-zor Military Council, told Reuters that jets flew in from government-held territory.
Deir Ezzor Military Council, a mainly Arab faction, is leading Operation Jazeera Storm, the SDF and Coalition-backed campaign against ISIS in the Khabur valley area on the east bank of the Euphrates river. Syrian government and allied forces are mounting an anti-ISIS offensive on the west bank.
“We have requested explanations from the Russian government,” Abu Khawla said. “We have asked for explanations from the Coalition … and necessary action to stop these jets.”
The Coalition’s new commander, Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II said: “Coalition officials are available and the de-confliction line with Russia is open 24 hours per day.”
Russia denies responsibility
Responding to the SDF’s accusation, Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov told AFP: “This is not possible. Why would we bomb them?”
A Syrian military source told the pro-regime Muraselon news website that neither Russian nor Syrian forces were responsible for the strike. “The Syrian Air Force is absolutely not responsible for the airstrike that hit the Kurdish forces located in the eastern bank of the Euphrates River,” the source said.
Assad advisor says regime will fight SDF
On Friday, Abu Khawla warned regime and allied forces against attacks on Deir Ezzor Military Council fighters east of the Euphrates.
“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.”
Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Syrian forces had already crossed the river. “The suburbs of this provincial center [Deir Ezzor] have been liberated. Advance units have successfully crossed the Euphrates and are holding positions on its eastern bank,” she said.
In an apparent response, Bouthaina Shaaban, political and media adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said on Friday that government forces and their allies will fight any force – including the SDF – to retake the whole country, Press TV reported.
“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,” Mrs. Shaaban said in an interview with the Lebanon-based al-Manar television network.
“I’m not saying this will happen tomorrow … but this is the strategic intent.”
She said the SDF “are trying to get areas [where there is] oil … but they will not get what they want,” an apparent reference to oil-rich Deir Ezzor province.
Update (9/16/17 6:25pm): YPG commander-in-chief Sîpan Hemo told ANHA that SDF forces, including Deir Ezzor Military Council and the YPG, the Kurd-led force that makes up the majority of the SDF, were hit by both airstrikes and artillery shelling from Syrian government and Russian forces.
“We are fighting against IS mercenaries, the regime and Russia are bombing the positions of our forces,” Mr. Hemo said. “We are asking Russia to explain the reasons for its bombing of our sites.”
“We will retaliate [against] all forces attacking our forces and hindering our advance,” Hemo added.
The YPG website quoted Hemo as saying: “Our forces will rescue the east of the Euphrates and the villages of Deir Ezzor from ISIS gangs. This is a duty on our shoulders. The whole world should know this. We have told all the international forces, the International Coalition and the Russian administration that we are going to liberate these areas.”