WASHINGTON – The United States has proposed to Russia a plan for managing an increasingly complex battlefield in Syria’s main oil-producing region, where U.S.-backed forces fighting Islamic extremists are in conflict with Russian-backed Syrian forces.
Gen. Joseph Dunford declined to describe the proposal in detail, but said the Russian military is eager to find ways to avoid an armed U.S.-Russian conflict in the area around Deir el-Zour on the Euphrates River.
The U.S. sees that area, from Deir el-Zour down the Euphrates River Valley to al-Qaim on the Iraqi side of the border, as the next major battleground in the evolving coalition campaign to destroy the Islamic State group.
“We have a proposal that we’re working on with the Russians right now,” Dunford said at a news conference with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “I won’t share the details, but my sense is that the Russians are as enthusiastic as we are to de-conflict operations and ensure that we continue to take the campaign to and ensure the safety of our personnel.”
Asked whether the proposal to Russia would address the problem of a Syrian army presence in Deir el-Zour, Dunford said, “It will. It will. And we’ve talked about that as a specific area that requires” avoiding U.S.-Russian conflict.
Russia’s support for the Syrian government is a complicating factor in the battle to rid Syria of IS. That was demonstrated on Thursday when the U.S. bombed a contingent of pro-Syrian government forces in southeastern Syria that Mattis said were advancing in a threatening way toward a rebel camp near the Jordanian border where U.S. advisers were present.
Mattis told reporters those forces targeted by airstrikes were “Iranian-directed forces.”
Russia on Friday denounced the U.S. air-strike.
“Whatever the reason for the U.S. strike was, it was illegitimate and marked another flagrant violation of Syria’s sovereignty,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Cyprus.