One week ago we wrote that in "The Race For Deir Ezzor: US And Syrian Forces Are About To Collide", explaining that "as ISIS continues to rapidly collapse in its last two strongholds (Raqqa and Deir Ezzor cities), the competition for recovery of territory seems in full gear between the US-SDF and Syria-Russia alliances." More importantly, "Deir Ezzor province happens to be Syria's most oil-rich territory, which means the future of some of Syria's largest oil fields remains up for grabs."
Furthermore, we added that "it looks increasingly like US-backed SDF forces and the Syrian Army could be set to clash as both roll back ISIS lines from either side of the Euphrates. The SDF's surprisingly rapid advance Friday and Saturday was assisted by US and coalition airstrikes and was further made possible by the Syrian Army's weakening of ISIS defenses on the southeast side of the river. The airspace over Deir Ezzor is potentially growing even more dangerous as there are substantial rumors that the US coalition has declared a no fly zone (NFZ) over the north side of the Euphrates. In the meantime, Syrian and Russian air operations in the area will only increase with Deir Ezzor military airport's returning to full service."
One week later, that's precisely what happened, and overnight we got the first glimpse of just what this next stage of the Syria proxy war, now largely devoid of ISIS, will look like, when according to Reuters "U.S.-backed militias", which have included various and assorted Al-Qaeda offshots, spinoffs and reverse mergers, said they came under attack on Saturday from Russian jets and Syrian government forces in Deir al-Zor province.
The Syrian Democratic Forces - an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias fighting with the U.S.-led military coalition - said the strikes wounded six of its fighters. In a statement carried by Reuters, the SDF said that "our forces east of the Euphrates were hit with an attack from the Russian aircraft and Syrian regime forces, targeting our units in the industrial zone."
A Deir Ezzor military council fighter which fights under the SDF holds the council's flag.
And, as has been the case for years now, ISIS was used as the strawman to justify escalation on both sides. The SDF accused Damascus of trying to obstruct its battle against Islamic State. Such attacks “waste energies that should be used against terrorism ... and open the door to side conflicts,” it said. Right... terrorism. Meanwhile, the real reason for the scramble for Deir Ezzor, imposing one's influence on this key resources rich region, remains unmentioned even as assaults by the Russian-backed Syrian army and the U.S.-backed SDF have at times raised fears of clashes that could stoke tensions between the competing world powers.
With Russian and Iran-backed Syrian troops closing in from the west, while US-backed SDF forces operating mostly on the east side, the two factions have mostly stayed out of each other’s way in their "fight against ISIS" with the Euphrates acting as a dividing line.
And while talks have been under way to extend a formal demarcation line, there has been little progress on the issue. Meanwhile, as Deir Ezzor is set to fall shortly to either government or SDF forces, and any imaginary demarcation line is voided, the simmering proxy war may once again suffer an explosive breakout.
Ahmed Abu Khawla, the commander of the SDF’s Deir al-Zor military council, said Russian or Syrian fighter jets flew in from government-held territory before dawn.
The warplanes struck as the SDF waged “heated and bloody battles” in the industrial zone on the eastern bank, seizing factories from Islamic State militants, he said.
”We have requested explanations from the Russian government,“ he told Reuters. ”We have asked for explanations from the coalition ... and necessary action to stop these jets.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government or Moscow, and there certainly has been no comment from the US-led coalition on action to stop Russian jets. Incidentally, if anyone wants a sign from Trump that he has truly turned his back on Putin, it won't come from the confiscation of some unneeded Russian assets or confiscation of Russian diplomatic buildings in the US, but from the US launching a firm Russian counter-offensive in Syria.
Also on Saturday, a senior aide to President Bashar al-Assad said the government would fight any force, including the U.S.-backed militias, to recapture the entire country. ”I‘m not saying this will happen tomorrow ... but this is the strategic intent,” Bouthaina Shaaban said in a TV interview according to Reuters.
Ironically, The U.S.-led coalition said last week that the SDF did not plan to enter Deir Ezzor city, where Syrian troops recently broke an Islamic State siege that had lasted three years. Just a few days later, however, they appears to have changed their mind.
Meanwhile, seeking to maintain the offensive momentum, a pro-Damascus military alliance launched attacks on Saturday from the southern corner of Deir Ezzor province to drive Islamic State from the Iraqi border. The last local vestige of the Islamic State is also coming under attack by U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces just over the border from Syria’s Deir Ezzor inside Iraq.
With the fate of Deir Ezzor - and much of the oil in the region - set to be sealed in the coming days, the Syrian war which has gradually disappeared from both the front pages and the public consciouness, may make a strong comeback, especially if it is Syria/Russia/Iran that first gains control of this key regional outpost.