Russia tries to push back US involvement behind Kurdish-led force in eastern Syria

UPDATE 1245 GMT: Russia’s Defense Ministry says it is “bewildered” at France calling out Moscow’s PR line on the Islamic State.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a TV interview that Russia had “misappropriated” the victory over ISIS. He noted that forces supported by the international coalition — a reference to the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces — had pushed back ISIS, and that the Russian military and pro-Assad forces had later freed Deir ez-Zor city in eastern Syria.

The Defense Ministry complained:

The defeat of IS in Syria is first of all result of actions by the Syrian leadership and governmental forces. With support of the Russian Aerospace Force, the Syrian armed forces liberated from IS terrorists hundreds of settlements and returned under control of the legitimate leadership practically the entire territory of the country.

The Ministry insisted that the international coalition had focused on countering pro-Assad forces and only recent succeeded against ISIS through “mass bombing of Raqqa [city] and its civilians”.

The US has rejected Moscow’s claims that American warplanes are interfering with the operations of Russian counterparts in eastern Syria.

On Saturday, Russia’s Defense Ministry put out the line, claiming that on November 23, a US F-22 fighter prevented two Russian Su-25 strike aircraft from bombing an Islamic State base to the west of the Euphrates River.

“Most close midair encounters between Russian and US jets in the area around the Euphrates River have been linked to the attempts of US aircraft to get in the way [of] striking against Islamic State terrorists,” Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov asserted.

A Pentagon representative rejected the allegation, “Those claims are incorrect.” He also hit back at Russian declarations of complete victory against ISIS:

Our carefully considered military assessment is that Daesh is still present on both sides of the Euphrates River, and therefore Coalition surgical strikes continue on the East Bank of the Middle Euphrates River Valley in support of [the Kurdish-led] Syrian Democratic Forces.

We know that Russian and Syrian regime aircraft are continuing their strikes on the west bank of the Euphrates River, between the towns of Mayadin and Abu Kamal, so it is likely that [Daesh] has yet to be cleared from that area.

The Islamic State has been removed from all major positions in eastern Syria — including the cities of Deir ez-Zor, al-Bukamal, and Mayadin — by both a pro-Assad offensive and the advance of the US-supported SDF. However, pockets of ISIS fighters remain. The Islamic State is also making some gains, reportedly with assistance from pro-Assad units, in opposition territory in eastern Hama Province.

A Russian Pretext to Attack the SDF?

Russia’s tactics this week may be an attempt to push the US back in advance of a pro-Assad move against the SDF in Deir ez-Zor Province and along the Iraq border.

This autumn there were clashes between the pro-Assad units, supported by Russian airpower, and the SDF as they each moved into areas along the Euphrates River near Deir ez-Zor city. Russian forces laid bridges for the pro-Assad troops to move to the eastern bank of the Euphrates, held by the SDF. They bombed SDF positions on at least one occasion, with the SDF claiming others.

There have been no reports of confrontation in the past month; however, the Assad regime is still hoping that it can reoccupy oil and gas fields taken by the SDF from the Islamic State. Bashar al-Assad’s senior advisor Bouthaina Shaaban has promised an eventual battle with Kurdish forces.