U.S. Stands Down, Lets Russia Lead an ISIS Battle

The U.S. has opted not to intervene in a months-long advance by the Syrian military and its Russian and Iranian allies designed to defeat the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in its final, eastern stronghold in Syria.

Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the anti-ISIS Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters in Washington via video chat Thursday that the U.S.-led coalition had decided not to enter the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, where Syrian troops recently broke an ISIS siege against comrades trapped behind enemy lines for three years. A separate campaign by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces has also pierced through ISIS territory toward Deir Ezzor, but will reportedly stop at the city’s limits so as not to complicate the already crowded conflict.

Related: U.S. coalition allows ISIS convoy free passage to eastern Syria

“I’ll just tell you that the plan is not to go into Deir Ezzor city but there (are) plenty of ISIS fighters and resources and leaders that continue to have holdouts throughout the middle Euphrates River valley,” Dillon said, according to Reuters.

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Issam Zahreddine (C-R), major general of the Syrian Republican Guard, talks with civilians in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor on September 10 as they continue to press forward with Russian air cover in the offensive against the Islamic State militant group across the province. A separate anti-ISIS campaign by the U.S.-led Syrian Democratic Forces has halted outside Deir Ezzor. GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images

Instead, Dillon said the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish alliance of Arabs and ethnic minorities, would advance down along the nearby Euphrates River valley. The Euphrates River divides Deir Ezzor into what is now the mostly government-controlled west and ISIS-held east. The U.S.’s decision to press on southbound around the city could end up isolating ISIS militants trapped between the western Syrian military front and the country’s eastern border with Iraq, where forces supported by both the U.S. and Iran are also battling ISIS.

While both Russia and the U.S. agree on the goal of defeating ISIS, they and their partnered forces on the ground differ on the political future of Syria. Russia and Iran are staunch supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and want to see him regain total control of the country after losing swaths of territory in the wake of a 2011 uprising. Kurdish forces,…

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