US-backed forces advance to northern edge of Deir e-Zor city

AMMAN: The Syrian Democratic Forces battled Islamic State fighters at the northern entrance of Syria's eastern Deir e-Zor city on Monday on the third day of a rapid, 50-kilometer advance from the northeast.

"Intense clashes" between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Islamic State (IS) shook Salhiya, just north of Deir e-Zor city on Monday, according to an online statement by the SDF’s Deir e-Zor Military Council.

Monday's clashes in Salhiya are part of Operation Jazirah Storm, an anti-IS offensive announced by the Deir e-Zor Military Council in a press release published online on Saturday.

Following the launch of the operation on Saturday, SDF fighters began to push from their previous positions in northern Deir e-Zor province towards the IS-held provincial capital. As of Sunday night, the US-backed forces crossed more than 50 kilometers of IS territory and reached the northern bank of the Euphrates River, SDF media official Mustafa Bali told Syria Direct.

The Euphrates cuts diagonally across Deir e-Zor province and borders the provincial capital, which sits along the southern bank of the river.

The SDF’s sudden advance across the eastern province has put the US-backed force at the doorstep of one of the Islamic State’s last remaining strongholds in Syria’s east just days after pro-regime troops broke through IS front lines on the western side of the city, in a parallel but separate offensive against the militant group’s positions in eastern Syria.

Syrian Democratic Forces positioned north of Deir e-Zor city on Monday. Photo courtesy of Deir e-Zor Military Council.

Last Tuesday, following a months-long offensive through IS-held territory west of Deir e-Zor, pro-regime forces reached the Syrian Arab Army’s Brigade 137 garrison, one of two government-held districts in the city that IS encircled when it took over most of Deir e-Zor province in a 2014 sweep through eastern Syria.

Since then, government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, captured the second encircled district, which includes the Deir e-Zor military airport, and completed its control over the western portion of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Sunday.

The Islamic State now faces a simultaneous assault on Deir e-Zor city by both US- and Russian-backed forces. Its de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa city, remains surrounded by the SDF, which has captured an estimated 70 percent of the city, Syria Direct reported late last month.

The SDF’s newly launched Operation Jazirah Storm seeks to “complement the fight for Raqqa,” Bali, the SDF media official, told Syria Direct.

“We are trying to prevent the Islamic State from establishing rear positions and reorganizing its ranks inside Deir e-Zor city,” Bali added.

Once the areas east of the Euphrates are cleared of IS, the region will be turned over to “representative bodies of local civilians who then oversee security and governance,” according to a statement on the operation released by US Central Command on Saturday.

The US-led international coalition is supporting the SDF operation with “equipment, training, intelligence and logistics support, precision fires and battlefield advice.”

The coalition says it is also monitoring advances by pro-Assad forces to ensure they do not cross a deconfliction zone which was established between the US and Russia in 2015 to prevent clashes between the two sides.

“We do monitor and watch where they are and where they are going at the same time as they move closer to the middle of the Euphrates Valley,” Colonel Ryan Dylan, spokesman for the coalition, told Voice of America last Thursday.

The deconfliction zone’s dividing line in Deir e-Zor province runs alongside the Euphrates River, with SDF operations permitted to the north, and those conducted by pro-regime forces permitted to the south, according to the outlet.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.