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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Russia denies hitting US-backed forces in air strike near Deir Ezzor

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces in the eastern Deir Ezzor. Rodi Said / Reuters
Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces in the eastern Deir Ezzor. Rodi Said / Reuters

Russia on Sunday denied hitting US-backed Syrian forces fighting ISIL in an air strike near the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, an attack the Pentagon said was witnessed by US advisers.

The Pentagon said the air strike on Saturday injured six fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but advisers from the US-led international coalition who were present were unharmed. It also said that Russian forces were aware of the presence of the US-backed forces and advisers in the area.

A Russian military spokesman in Syria denied the US claim and said its strikes had only targeted areas under the control of ISIL.

"This is not possible. Why would we bomb them?" said Igor Konashenkov.

The Russian military has been providing support for Syrian troops and allied militias who invaded Deir Ezzor last week, breaking a three-year-old ISIL siege of Syrian government forces there.

Deir Ezzor is one of ISIL’s last strongholds in Syria, and the SDF has been closing in on the city from the north while the government’s forces invaded from the east.

The US and Russia currently observe a line of demarcation that runs roughly along the Euphrates River, with US-backed forces on the eastern side and Russian-backed ones on the west. But there has been deadly friction in the past.

In June, the US military shot down a Syrian fighter jet after it struck targets near SDF fighters. In May, the US also bombed Syrian government forces, saying their convoy had approached too close to a US base near the southern town of Al Tanf where a US garrison trains allied Syrian militia. Last September US air raids killed at least 90 Syrian soldiers near Deir Ezzor’s military airport.

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Saturday’s strike hit SDF fighters just north of Deir Ezzor, about five kilometres from the Syrian government’s positions. Although the SDF has reached the city’s northern outskirts, it has so far made no attempt to enter it.

Later on Saturday, Buthaina Shaaban, an aide to Mr Al Assad, threatened Syrian military action against the SDF.

“Whether it’s the Syrian Democratic Forces, or Daesh or any illegitimate foreign force in the country ... we will fight and work against them so our land is freed completely from any aggressor,” Ms Shaaban told Lebanese TV channel Al Manar.

The real prize in the area is not necessarily Deir Ezzor itself but the area to the east, where the majority of Syria’s oil fields are located.

Ms Shaaban said the SDF were trying to get to the oil fields "but they will not get what they want".

As ISIL loses territory in eastern Syria, the SDF, which is dominated by Kurdish forces who support a semi-independent Kurdish region within Syria, have sought to consolidate their control over areas captured from the extremist militants.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, on Sunday parsed claims made last week by the Russian military that the Syrian government now controlled 85 per cent of the country’s territory.

The Observatory said the government and its allies controlled more of Syria than any other force, but that their recent gains still only put them in control of about 48 per cent of the country. The US-backed SDF, on the other hand, controls about 24 per cent of Syria’s land.

The Observatory said ISIL currently controls about 12 per cent of the country, while various rebel factions, including Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, an alliance dominated by Syria's former Al Qaeda affiliate, control the remaining 16 per cent.

The government does, however, control the majority of the country’s urban areas.

* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse and Reuters

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