SHADADI, Syria, Aug 26, (Agencies): US-backed Arab and Kurdish fighters said on Friday they would launch an offensive “very soon” to oust the Islamic State group from Syria’s oil-rich Deir Ezzor province.
The strategic territory is also seen as a prize by advancing Syrian troops, but an agreement between regime ally Russia and the US-led coalition is expected to keep the rival assaults from clashing.
The Deir Ezzor Military Council (DEMC), a coalition of Arab tribes and fighters that belongs to the broader US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, announced the upcoming offensive on Friday in northeast Syria.
“Our forces are preparing for the great battle of Deir Ezzor and unifying the tribes,” said DEMC head Ahmad Abu Khawlah in Shadai, some 60 kms (35 miles) south of Hasakeh.
He said at least 1,500 tribal fighters had joined the DEMC.
“There is no specific timeframe for the battle, but it will be very soon,” he said.
The SDF is currently waging a ferocious fight for IS’s de facto capital in Raqqa city, about 75 kms (50 miles) west of the administrative border with Deir Ezzor.
SDF fighters have seized some territory in Deir Ezzor province, but Russian-backed Syrian government forces have been making a mad dash towards the provincial capital of the same name.
Regime troops have swept across Syria’s desert to break IS’s two-year siege on tens of thousands of people trapped in Deir Ezzor city.
The US-led coalition has said that a “de-confliction line” has been set to prevent any “mishaps” between the two advancing forces.
Spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon told journalists this month that the line “has been coordinated and de-conflicted, and has been placed between the SDF and the regime and the Russians and the US”.
Abu Muhammad al-Shayti, who heads the DEMC’s Shaytat tribal unit, said on Friday that his fighters “will not target Deir Ezzor city, but the province”.
“Our forces are committed to what the coalition sees as fit — to fight Daesh (IS) only,” he said.
IS has lost swathes of territory to US-backed forces in the north and to Russian-backed Syrian troops in the country’s centre and east.
Moscow has said the recapture of Deir Ezzor could mark the conclusion of the battle against IS.
And the US-led coalition’s deputy head, British Major General Rupert Jones, said on Wednesday the final fight would probably take place in the stretch of border between Syria and Iraq.
“The expectation has always been that that would see DAESH increasingly squeezed into … the middle Euphrates valley, and that is where the military defeat will be completed,” Jones said.
Meanwhile, Islamic State group militants pushed back government forces advancing on one of the last towns still in IS hands in the province of Raqqa, killing over two dozen soldiers and seizing vehicles, a Syria monitoring group and the extremists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the early Friday counterattack by IS short-circuited a government advance on Maadan, which brought them within only a few kilometers (miles) in recent days.
The Russia-backed government forces have been on a multi-pronged offensive, moving toward the IS-held territories in Deir Ezzor province in the east from northern, central and southern Syria.
On Friday, the Russian military said its air force is now focusing on supporting the Syrian army’s offensive in Deir Ezzor. Syrian government forces control around half the city and a nearby air base, both of which are besieged by the IS militants.
Col Gen Sergei Rudskoi of the military’s General Staff said the Russian two-year campaign backing the Syrian government has allowed President Bashar Assad’s forces to quadruple the territory under their control.
At a news conference in Moscow, he said the area under Syrian government control has increased from 19,000 to 78,000 square kms (7,335 to 30,115 sq miles) since Russia launched its air campaign in September 2015. Russian pilots have flown more than 28,000 missions since the campaign’s launch, he said.
Rudskoi said Syrian government troops are advancing from three directions to encircle Deir Ezzor. “Breaking the blockade of the city will mark the defeat of the most capable part of the IS in Syria,” he said.
In other news, Syrian Kurdish authorities on Saturday began laying the groundwork for the first local elections in the federal system they are establishing in the country’s north, an official told AFP.
Hadiya Youssef, co-chair of the federal system’s constituent assembly, said three rounds of elections would be held starting in September.
“In this phase, we are outlining the electoral process by holding meetings with the local councils and societal stakeholders,” Youssef said on the sidelines of a summit in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli.
The meeting brought together Kurdish, Arab, Syriac and other parties to discuss how each of the three electoral phases would be managed.
The first round on Sept 22, according to Youssef, would see residents vote for representatives on the neighbourhood level.
Elections for executive councils for towns and regions are planned for November 3.
Then, on Jan 19, they would elect legislative councils for each of the three cantons, as well as a single joint legislative assembly.
“Every region will have its own legislative council, with the prerogative to set laws in the region as long as they do not contradict the social contract,” Youssef said.
Legislative assemblies would have four-year terms, but local delegates and executive councils would have two-year terms.
Taking advantage of the Syrian army’s withdrawal from swathes of northern territory, Kurdish authorities declared three “autonomous” cantons there in 2013.
Last year, leading Kurdish and Arab parties announced they would establish a “federal” system across the cantons, a declaration lambasted by Syria’s regime, the opposition, and local rivals.
Youssef on Saturday defended the plan, saying it was not aimed at breaking Syria apart.
“Our federal system is geographic and does not aim to divide Syria,” she told AFP.
“The objections from the regime and opposition parties all say that they do not support Syria’s partition — neither do we.”
Elsewhere, the chief of the Russian military’s branch for protection from chemical weapons says his troops have dismantled two chemical weapons facilities in areas freed from militants in Syria.
Maj Gen Igor Kirillov didn’t name the locations, saying only that Russia will provide the data to the international chemical weapons watchdog OPCW.
Kirillov said Friday the facilities dismantled this month were the last two of the 27 chemical weapons sites in Syria, according to Russian news wires. The OPCW was monitoring the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenals under a 2013 US-Russia-brokered deal.
In April, the US struck a Syrian base after accusing Bashar Assad’s government of killing over 90 people in a chemical attack. Assad has denied involvement, and Russia has claimed the attack was staged by the militants.
Jordan has said its relations with the Syrian regime are heading in the “right direction” and looked forward to a reopening of the border crossings with its war-torn neighbour.
“Our relations with the Syrian state and regime are going in the right direction,” government spokesman Mohamed Momani said on television on Friday night.
Momani highlighted the “stability” of the situation in southern Syria, across the border from Jordan.
The government spokesman, who is also state minister for information, said his remarks were “a very important message that everyone should hear”.
A ceasefire brokered by the United States, Russia and Jordan in the southern Syrian provinces of Daraa, Quneitra and Suweida has largely held since it entered into force July 9.
Russia and Iran, the Syrian regime’s main allies, and rebel-backer Turkey agreed in May to create four safe zones in Syria in a deal aimed at bringing a lasting truce.
Their negotiations are parallel to UN-sponsored talks.
Moscow believes the “de-escalation zone” in southern Syria can only be put in place with the agreement of the United States and Jordan.
“The ceasefire is holding, and we hope there will soon be additional measures to consolidate stability and security in Syria,” said Momani.
“If the current situation continues and southern Syria stabilises, it would allow for the reopening of the crossing points between the two states,” he added.
Jordan is one of the few Arab countries not to have closed its embassy in Damascus, and the Syrian diplomatic mission in Amman also remains open.
The kingdom shares a border of more than 370 kms (230 miles) with Syria, where over 330,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since its conflict broke out in 2011.
The economy of Jordan, a country devoid of natural resources, has been severely affected by the closure of borders with Iraq and Syria, which are both at war.
The United Nations says Jordan is hosting more than 650,000 Syrian refugees, while the kingdom puts their actual number at 1.4 million.