MOSCOW (AP) — Russia on Thursday issued a stern warning to U.S. forces and their allies in Syria, saying it has deployed Russian special forces alongside Syrian government troops in the battle for the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province and that Moscow would retaliate if the Russians come under fire.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have already shelled Syrian government positions outside of Deir el-Zour twice in recent days.
The Russian special forces’ deployment raises the specter of a direct confrontation on the ground between Russian forces and pro-Syrian troops they back on one side, and the U.S.-supported Kurdish-led Syrian forces on the other. U.S. special forces are also operating with the SDF, providing artillery and other support.
“Syrian forces have twice come under massive mortar and rocket artillery fire coming from the areas on the eastern bank of the Euphrates where SDF fighters and U.S. special forces are deployed,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said.
Konashenkov said the warning was delivered to the U.S. military command. Russian special forces have been deployed to help Syrian government forces fighting the IS militants outside Deir el-Zour, he also said Thursday.
“Attempts to open fire from SDF-controlled areas would be immediately met with retaliation,” he said. “The firing positions in those areas will be immediately destroyed with all the arsenal at our disposal.”
However, a Syrian commander with the U.S.-backed SDF denied Russian accusations of shelling, saying at least 7 kilometers (4 miles) of IS-held territory separates them from the Syrian government troops.
The SDF has already accused Russia of targeting its troops in Deir el-Zour in an airstrike last week, a claim Moscow denied.
Russia began its operation to support President Bashar Assad’s offensive against the IS in Syria in 2015 but has mostly focused on providing air cover to government troops on the ground.
The campaign in Deir el-Zour, Syria’s oil-rich eastern province, is caught up in a race between government troops and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
Both sides are seeking to expand their control of the province bordering Iraq. Many oil fields, including al-Omar, Syria’s largest, are scattered on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.
The Russian-backed campaign has so far been to recapture the city and provincial capital, also called Deir el-Zour.
The U.S.-backed offensive is focused on the…