The Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, said they are prepared to respond to any attacks from the Syrian army and its militias as they begin an operation against the final IS strongholds in Deir el-Zour province in eastern Syria.
The SDF on Tuesday announced the launch of a military operation, code-named al-Jazeera Storm, against IS remnants who have reportedly regrouped in the border region between Syria and Iraq after losing control over major populated cities, including its once self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa.
“We have the right to defend ourselves and appropriately respond to any aggression on our forces,” said Lilwa al-Abdallah, the SDF spokeswoman for the operation, told VOA.
“The areas liberated from IS have cost us the pure blood of our martyrs, and we will not relinquish them easily,” she added.
The new military offensive will aim to oust IS militants from a vast plain in the town of Hajin along the eastern side of the Euphrates River and north of Abu Kamal town along the Iraq-Syria border. It will be supported by the U.S.-led coalition.
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“The fighting will be difficult, but we and our partners will prevail,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. “We will defend United States, coalition and partner forces if attacked.”
Russia and Iran
U.S. officials have repeatedly said their battle against IS in eastern Syria’s Deir el-Zour has been complicated by the close proximity of the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iranian-linked Shiite militias.
The province is considered strategic because of its proximity to the Iraqi border and its oil fields.
The U.S.-backed forces advanced against IS positions from the eastern side of the province last September, followed shortly by a separate attack from the Syrian army and its allied militants from the western side.
The Syrian government now controls the province’s capital, which goes by the same name, and the entire western side, while the U.S.-backed forces hold the east.
Over the months, the U.S-led coalition has several times reported that it responded to fire from the Syrian-allied militants and has warned of possible escalation with Russia.
A U.S. airstrike in February reportedly killed at least 100 Russian mercenaries after a surprise assault on a U.S.-held base in the province.
More recently, the coalition jets Sunday reportedly carried out airstrikes against pro-Syrian government forces after the Syrian army briefly captured a string of villages east of the Euphrates River from the SDF.
Rights groups, including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said at least nine pro-government fighters were killed in the strikes before the territory was regained by the U.S.-backed forces.
Hashim Muhammad, the SDF commander of the al-Jazeera Storm operation, accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of “playing a game” by trying to intentionally hamper their operation in eastern Deir el-Zour.
“The regime is now collecting information on our operation to make sure we, along with the coalition, fail in our mission against IS,” he told VOA, adding that the Syria government “conspires to attack our forces each time we prepare to liberate the Syrian soil from terrorism.”
Muhammad said his forces would coordinate with the Iraqi army to keep the pressure on the Iraqi side and ensure a quick victory. The control of the border area will help SDF secure Deir el-Zour oil fields, including Syria’s largest al-Omar field that came under SDF control last October but has faced continued threats from IS militants in the region.
The SDF halted its fight against IS in eastern Syria and turned westward in mid-March to fight a Turkish incursion in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin. But the forces trickled back to eastern Syria after Turkish forces announced full control over the city.