U.S.-backed forces in Syria have accused Russia of launching airstrikes on their positions in the country’s east, where world powers and their proxies are scrambling for influence amid the collapse of the Islamic State militant group.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by the United States, said Monday that Russian warplanes targeted SDF fighters in three locations in Deir al-Zour province, including at a major gas field they had seized Saturday from militants. It was the second time this month that the SDF, a coalition of Arab and ethnic Kurdish fighters, has claimed to have been targeted by Russian strikes.
Also Monday, Russia blamed what it called “the duplicity of U.S. policy” in Syria for the death of a Russian general killed by Islamic State mortar fire in Deir al-Zour. Lt. Gen. Valery Asapov is the highest-ranking Russian officer to have been killed in the Russian intervention in Syria, which began two years ago.
His death was “the price paid in blood” for U.S. hypocrisy, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said.
Tensions between the United States and Russia in eastern Syria have intensified in recent weeks, as both the Russian-backed Syrian government and U.S.-supported proxies are fighting parallel battles against the Islamic State.
In Deir al-Zour, a desert region rich in oil and gas, the extremist group is struggling to hold on to one of its last redoubts in Syria. As the Islamic State’s defenses crumble, the province has emerged as a key prize in the battle to shape the country’s postwar future.
The SDF, bolstered by U.S. airstrikes and Special Operations forces, has advanced on Deir al-Zour from the north. On Saturday, SDF fighters seized the Conoco gas field, named after the Houston-based oil conglomerate that built and operated a plant there in the early 2000s. It was one of the Islamic State’s most important sources of funding, analysts say.
For the government, such fields represent revenue and power, allowing it to reassert control in the face of years of armed rebellion. To the Kurds, whose militias command the SDF, the resources are a bargaining chip in their negotiations for autonomy.
Iran, a strong backer of the Syrian government, needs Deir al-Zour to secure a land corridor from Tehran to its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Iranian-backed militias have assisted the government in eastern Syria. Analysts say the United States is likely to welcome its allies controlling territory as it looks to thwart Iran’s regional ambitions.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Erin Cunningham, David Filipov