U.S.-backed militias and the Syrian Army are less than 10 miles from each other as they converge on the Islamic State stronghold of Deir Ezzour in eastern Syria, which still hosts around 2500 Islamic State fighters.
Syrian government forces advancing from the west initially broke a years-long siege of the city last week, and also captured significant swathes of neighboring territory.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — a coalition made up largely of Kurdish groups – have been moving on Deir Ezzour from the north, and had reportedly reached its industrial outskirts by Sunday.
The simultaneous offensives have brought both forces — backed separately by the U.S., Russia, and Iran — into striking distance of each other, setting the stage for a potentially explosive situation.
In the past, coalition aircraft, the SDF, and the Syrian Army haven’t exactly been good neighbors. In a series of incidents in June, U.S. forces shot down two Syrian government drones and an Su-22 aircraft after the U.S. claimed the warplane struck SDF units in the area.
Now, as the Islamic State loses more territory and forces backed by outside powers find themselves in close quarters, concerns are mounting that more miscalculations could happen.
“As we get closer to Deir Ezzour and you have these forces converge upon one another, the importance of [communication] between the Russians and the coalition, SDF and the regime becomes more important,” said Col. Ryan Dillon, a coalition spokesperson.
Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Department of Defense spokesperson, said that U.S. forces and their Russian counterparts had been utilizing the so-called “deconfliction channel,” a direct line of communication between the two parties, to avoid potential conflict.
“The SDF and regime conduct all their interactions through the deconfliction channel” he told Foreign Policy. “We pass messages on about where we’re operating, and they’ll pass on where they’re operating,” he said, though he acknowledged that communication can only do so much.
“It’s up to the Syrian forces to actually take heed of the info that we pass to them via the Russians, and sometimes that doesn’t happen,” he said.
However, according to Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, it will take more than effective lines of communication to resolve the serious strategic differences at play in Deir Ezzour.
Though the coalition has observed a tacit agreement to stay on the north side of the Euphrates River and the Syrian government on the south, this truce may not hold for long.
“Some kind of conflict is sure to arise, because neither of the two main actors have the same objective,” Heras said.
For Assad and the Iranian-allied militias that back him, that goal is ultimately to recover lost territory and oil resources in Syrian territory north of the Euphrates. In turn, the U.S. coalition’s objective is to assist the SDF in defeating the Islamic State in its new de-facto capital of Mayadin, south of the river.
“That dividing line simply no longer makes sense,” Heras said. “You have this situation where Assad’s objectives are at odds with the coalition and vice versa.”
Photo credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images