Syrian troops battling IS cross river toward US-backed force

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops battling the Islamic State group crossed to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in Deir el-Zour on Monday, threatening a potential standoff with the U.S.-backed forces operating there.

But the U.S.-led coalition spokesman downplayed concerns, saying both advancing forces are maintaining lines of communication to avoid conflict.

Spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition Col. Ryan Dillon told The Associated Press that the top commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian forces has maintained “open lines” of communication and discussions with his counterpart in the Syrian government to avoid friction. This is the first sign of direct contact between the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as the race for control of the oil-rich province picks up speed.

Dillon said “de-confliction” talks with Russia have increased in frequency, as well as at different operational levels, to avoid ground friction as the forces “converge and have a common goal together” to fight IS.

Dillon’s comments came after Syrian troops crossed to the eastern side of the Euphrates river that runs along Deir el-Zour city, where the SDF have been waging their separate offensive against IS. The crossing came two days after the SDF said its fighters were hit by Russian airstrikes on the eastern bank of the river. Russia denied it was behind the airstrikes.

Both sides are seeking to expand their control of the oil-rich province bordering Iraq. Many oil fields, including al-Omar, Syria’s largest, are scattered on the eastern bank.

The U.S.-backed offensive is focused on the Iraq border area, which is still controlled by IS. Washington fears that further advances by pro-government forces could help Iran expand its influence across the region via a land bridge stretching through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, all the way to Israel.

Iran is a key ally of Assad, and has provided financial and logistical support to his forces throughout the six-year civil war.

Dillon said the government forces have advanced “quickly” to seize Deir el-Zour city, but it remains to be seen if they “have what it takes” to hold the newly liberated territories. He said the U.S.-backed fighters have no intention advancing on the city.

The crossing tightens the government’s grip on the city by closing in on the militants from all sides, except for a narrow waterway flowing south. It comes nearly two weeks after the Russia-backed Syrian troops breached a three-year…

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