The United States and Russia are working to “re-establish deconfliction” in eastern Syria, the highest-ranking US general said on Sunday, September 17, a day after Russia was accused of striking and injuring US-backed forces near Deir Ez-Zor city.
The Syrian Democratic Forces said on Saturday that six of its fighters were injured after an airstrike on its positions east of the Euphrates, blaming both Russia and the Syrian government. The US-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 Ez-Zor is the only Syrian province where ISIS 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.
General Joe Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Russian aircraft pursued ISIS militants across the Euphrates and struck locations which were close enough to injure the SDF troops, AFP reported.
Dunford said he had spoken to his Russian counterpart General Valery Gerasimov about the issue on Saturday night, reportedly emphasising the importance of tactical-level de-confliction between commanders on the ground.
“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 deconfliction is more difficult right now than it was a few months ago,” he said. “We haven’t resolved all the issues right now. We’ll get through that.”
“I spoke with Gerasimov, Secretary Tillerson has spoken to foreign minister Lavrov. We have had communications at three different levels,” Dunford said.
De-confliction lines in eastern Syria
It is unclear whether Dunford was referring to the de-confliction telephone line, or to a geographic deconfliction line along the Euphrates.
Both the Coalition and the Syrian regime have said that they intend to continue anti-ISIS offensives southeast along the Euphrates river valley towards Iraq.
A Coalition spokesperson told Grasswire 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 Ez-Zor.
In August, 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.”
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.”
On Friday, Bouthaina Shaaban, political and media adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said 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.”
A meeting between Tillerson and Lavrov in New York on Sunday evening was added to Tillerson’s public schedule on Sunday afternoon. Both are in the city ahead of the United Nations General Assembly.