US-backed Syria Kurdish force says east Euphrates free of IS

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s main Kurdish forces declared Sunday that they have successfully cleared areas east of the Euphrates river of Islamic State militants, with help from the U.S.-led coalition and Russian forces.

The announcement comes after U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Washington will stop arming the YPG as offensive operations come to an end.

Noureddine Mahmoud, spokesman for the People’s Defense Units, known as the YPG, and the backbone of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, praised U.S. and Russian air and logistical support as well as ground operations coordination. He said his forces are ready to form joint operation rooms with the different partners to complete the fight against IS.

“We hope for an increase of the support and ensuring air protection and necessary cover,” Mahmoud said at a press conference in al-Salihiya, a town in Deir el-Zour province on Sunday.

The press conference was attended by a Russian general from the Russian base in Hmeimeem, in western Syria.

The SDF have been battling IS fighters east of the Euphrates river in Deir el Zour province since September. In a separate campaign, Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and allied Iranian-backed militia, have been chasing IS militants on the other side of the river.

Russia and the U.S. kept in contact, in so-called “de-confliction” talks, to prevent clashes between the two forces. U.S. officials said communication was also maintained on the ground, including in meetings between SDF commanders and their counterparts on the government side.

Mahmoud also praised the role tribal leaders played in the fight against IS in the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province, where tribesmen play an integral role in consolidating power there.

The extent of SDF cooperation with Russian forces and their Syrian allies, however, is not clear. The Kurdish-led forces now control nearly 25 percent of Syrian territories and important oil resources after their battlefield successes in northern and eastern Syria. But they are landlocked and economically dependent on areas controlled by the Syrian government, as well as on borders controlled either by Iraqi forces or the Syrian government.

Meanwhile, building relationships with the tribal leaders in Deir el-Zour is an essential part of any effort to continue to hold ground. Arab tribes are skeptical of the Kurdish-led forces, although they have previously worked together, with U.S. support.

But Washington’s support for the SDF has come into…

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