Six members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were wounded in an attack by the Syrian government on Saturday, September 16.The SDF is an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters that is supported by the United States. Government forces, heavily supported by Russia, led an air strike in the Deir ez-Zor province in northeastern Syria. The Russian government has denied any involvement in bombing the fighters in Syria, claiming that the United States military was fully aware of the planned offensive on the Islamic State targets beforehand. Once word was out that the attack wounded six fighters, the Pentagon was quick to condemn the actions of Russia. In fact, the United States accused Russia of deliberately targeting SDF soldiers and advisers.
According to Major-General Igor Konashenkov, the chief spokesman for the Russian ministry of defence, the United States’ claim is simply untrue. He continued to say that Russia specifically targeted locations known to be ISIL bases. Konashenkov was quoted by the TASS news agency as saying, “Russian air forces carry out pinpoint strikes only on IS targets that have been observed and confirmed through several channels.” The spokesman added that the SDF and United States authorities were adequately notified of the offensive prior to any violence occurring. He claimed that American forces were notified “in good time about the borders of our military operation in Deir ez-Zor.”
Deir ez-Zor is the largest city in eastern Syria and the seventh largest in the country. The city sits on the shores of the Euphrates River, and is located roughly 450 km northeast of the country’s capital of Damascus. This province is generally seen as a critical area of control by both the Syrian troops backed by Russia, and the SDF forces backed by the United States. The region has been the site of intense violence over recent months, and fighting has escalated between the Syrian government and the SDF. However, the Islamic State previously held control over the vast majority of the city, claiming power over the roughly 100,000 citizens that lived there.
The United States does not intend to remain silent about the attack that just occurred, as well as the underlying issues that may have contributed to it. The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has scheduled a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the military operations on the ground. A senior official with the State Department said, “We are going to have a stern conversation about Russian military behaviour in Syria.” Another State Department official added, “We have a deconfliction mechanism which is supposed to prevent this kind of thing from happening — so we really need to get it fixed.” At this point, both the United States and Russia believe they each have the best strategic military plan to battle Islamic State forces in Syria. However, these two major global powers are not aligned on other critical elements impacting the Middle Eastern country.
Syria has been undergoing a civil war since March of 2011, between the government and forces opposing the government. It grew as part of the wider Arab Spring protests, primarily as a result of the discontent of many with President Bashar al-Assad. In this civil war, Russia backs the Assad regime, while the United States and other allies are motivated by an anti-government mentality. As a result, it is evident that the United States and Russia have fundamentally different perceptions of the best course of action in Syria.
Tensions have steadily risen between the two nations in recent weeks, as is apparent by the most recent incident on Saturday. Russia, working for the pro-Assad government regime, has recently tried to take over some territory in Deir ez-Zor. According to a state-owned news agency in Syria, the country joined forces with a group of regime soldiers that have been stationed there for nearly three years. The Russian Ministry of Defense released in a statement that two Russian submarines were used to launch cruise missiles targeting the Islamic State forces in Deir ez-Zor. However, it is clear that the anti-government regime did not approve of this method to eradicating ISIS powers from the province.
The SDF and its allies have begun a new operation in the city. Named “Operation Jazeera Storm,” this initiative was developed in an attempt to capture portions of the land along the Khabur River, which is located in the southern region of the city. It is reported that, under this operation, the SDF has already captured roughly 300 square kilometres of that desired land. Additionally, in allegiance with this operation, the United States also carried out airstrikes on the region last Wednesday, September 13.
Both offensives aim to take over the Deir ez-Zor region from Islamic State power, but there is uncertainty over which side will ultimately claim control over the land. However, US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led coalition, reported that the SDF does not plan to go into the city at this time. Thus, it appears as though the Russian-backed troops will capture most of the province for the time being.
There has been an unfortunate amount of violence as a result of this disagreement in Syria. While both sides aim to seize land that is currently held by the Islamic State, there is a great amount of disagreement as to how that goal would best be achieved. This is also heightened by the fact that the two groups differ on the fundamental issues that have sparked the Syrian Civil War. While there is no simple solution to a situation this multifaceted, both sides need to condemn the use of violence and warfare against each other. There is a collective interest in driving the Islamic State out of Syria, and that must be done with as little bloodshed as possible. Until Russia and the United States, on behalf of their respective allies, attempt to create a more inclusive dialogue about their military operations in Deir ez-Zor, this will not be achieved.
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