The United States and Russia agreed that operational commanders should be in contact to de-conflict movements in eastern Syria, the spokesman for the highest-ranking U.S. general told The Globe Post on Monday. The de-confliction line has officially been used for months by higher-level commanders for air and ground operations, but the complex situation on the ground near Deir Ezzor has prompted closer cooperation.
The move comes after the U.S.-led Coalition accused Russia of striking and injuring U.S.-backed forces near Deir Ez-Zor city on Saturday. The Syrian Democratic Forces said that six fighters were injured after an airstrike on its positions east of the Euphrates river, blaming both Russia and the Syrian government. The U.S.-led Coalition later said Russian aircraft struck a zone that it knew contained SDF and Coalition military personnel, a claim denied by a Russian military spokesperson.
Oil-rich Deir Ezzor is the only Syrian province where Islamic State still holds significant territory. Syrian government and allied forces including Russia are mounting an anti-ISIS offensive west of the Euphrates river while the SDF is conducting a Coalition-backed campaign against ISIS on the east side, where the majority of Syria’s oil wells are located.
Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, spokesperson for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Globe Post that Russian Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov told Gen. Joseph Dunford during a Saturday night phone call that Russian aircraft had pursued ISIS militants across the Euphrates, striking locations that were close enough to injure nearby SDF troops.
“I spoke with Gerasimov, Secretary Tillerson has spoken to Foreign Minister Lavrov. We have had communications at three different levels,” Gen. Dunford told reporters on Sunday. “We have been engaged at every level to re-establish deconfliction at the Euphrates river. It couldn’t be more complex and crowded in that area, and so de-confliction is more difficult right now than it was a few months ago.”
Gen. Dunford also reinforced that the terrain in the area is difficult.
“We haven’t resolved all the issues right now. We’ll get through that,” he added.
Capt. Hicks said that the generals discussed both de-confliction phone lines and the currently agreed geographic de-confliction lines. During their conversation, Gen. Dunford emphasized to Gen. Gerasimov the importance of tactical-level de-confliction between operational commanders on the ground because of dynamic troop movement on both sides, and the generals agreed that operational commanders should be in contact, Capt. Hicks said.
Referring to the de-confliction phone line, Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, the Coalition’s new commander said on Saturday: “Coalition officials are available and the de-confliction line with Russia is open 24 hours per day.”
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in New York in New York on Sunday evening, ahead of the United Nations General Assembly.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the two countries’ top diplomats “recommitted to de-conflicting military operations in Syria, reducing the violence, and creating the conditions for the Geneva process to move forward, pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254.”
“The parties discussed cooperation on the Syrian crisis and other aspects of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the status of implementation of the Minsk agreements,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
De-Confliction Lines in Eastern Syria
Both the Coalition and the Syrian regime have said that they intend to continue anti-ISIS offensives southeast along the middle Euphrates river valley towards Iraq. The Coalition also plans offensives on the Iraq side of the border.
The Coalition routinely declines to discuss details of the operation of the de-confliction channel. A spokesperson told The Globe Post: “The Coalition de-conflicts the complex and congested battlespace over eastern Syria with Russian officials. Communication between the Coalition and the Russians ensures the safety of our collective aircrews and assets, and supports our operations on the ground. To maintain operational security, we will not discuss specifics. Ultimately, this de-confliction allows us to focus on our mission: to defeat Da’esh.”
A Coalition spokesperson said in July that a geographic de-confliction line agreed by the SDF, Coalition, Syrian regime and Russia runs from a point southwest of Tabqa to a point on the Euphrates River, and that the SDF and regime agreed to de-conflict operations on the ground in the area around Deir Ezzor.
The Coalition clarified on August 19 that the de-confliction line “does not extend into the City of Dayr Az Zayr,” and on August 31, the then Coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said: “We have lines that are agreed to that will cover much of the Middle Euphrates River Valley now; not all of it yet, but we’ll get to that when the time comes.”
However, Bouthaina Shaaban, political and media adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said on Friday that the regime and their allies will fight any force to retake the whole country. She said the SDF “are trying to get areas [where there is] oil … but they will not get what they want.”