US-backed forces battle IS for Deir e-Zor province's oil-rich east

AMMAN: US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces battled the Islamic State in rural eastern Deir e-Zor on Sunday, SDF officials told Syria Direct, as the Kurdish-led forces appear to focus their efforts on the oil-rich eastern half of the province rather than its capital city.

The aim of the battles is to “liberate all areas east of the Euphrates River” from Islamic State (IS) control, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) media official Mustafa Bali told Syria Direct on Sunday, “all the way to the Iraqi border.”

Meanwhile, Russian-backed Syrian regime forces directly west of the SDF are working to drive the Islamic State out of the provincial capital Deir e-Zor city and its immediate outskirts.

The Euphrates River cuts diagonally across Deir e-Zor province and alongside the provincial capital, which lies along the western bank of the river.

On Sunday afternoon, the US-backed, majority-Kurdish SDF clashed with Islamic State fighters on the ground near the Jofra oil field, approximately 25km east of Deir e-Zor city, Leilawa al-Abdallah, a spokeswoman for the SDF’s Deir e-Zor Military Council told Syria Direct. She did not report any major advances by either side on Sunday.

The latest fighting comes one day after the SDF captured the Jofra oil field from IS. Jofra was among the largest of dozens of oil fields that had remained under Islamic State control since the SDF announced the launch of its “Jazirah Storm” military campaign last month to “clear the eastern rural areas of Deir ez-Zor.”

An IS sign in the recently captured town of Sour on Sunday. Photo courtesy of ANHA.

Taking control of the oil field gives the US-backed SDF control over a major source of former Islamic State revenue and a gateway to dozens of other IS-held oil fields dotting the countryside east of the Euphrates.

“Jofra was one of the most important sources of income for IS,” said spokeswoman al-Abdallah.

Now, roughly 70km of Islamic State territory lie between Jofra and the Iraqi border to the east, spanning an area of thousands of square kilometers rich in oil deposits and wells—all now squarely in SDF sights.

Control over the entirety of the oil-rich region of rural eastern Deir e-Zor province could “increase the financial viability” of Rojava, the name given to Syria’s de facto autonomous, majority-Kurdish northern region, Chris Kozak, an analyst for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War told Syria Direct in a recent interview.

Within the SDF’s push to take eastern Deir e-Zor, the American-backed forces also "fully liberated" the town of Sour, roughly 50 kilometers northeast of the provincial capital, SDF media official Bali told Syria Direct.

Sour is the largest town along a mostly IS-controlled highway connecting SDF positions on the eastern bank of the Euphrates with the US-established Shaddadi military base 100 kilometers north in Kurdish-controlled Hasakah province. Capturing Sour cut the highway, once an “IS supply route to carry out attacks,” on Shaddadi, said Bassam Aziz, a commander within the SDF’s Deir e-Zor Military Council.

A confrontation in Deir e-Zor?

As both the SDF and the Syrian regime battle IS on the ground in Deir e-Zor, reports of shelling by regime and Russian forces appear to confirm worries of a direct confrontation between the US- and Russian-backed forces.

On Saturday, the SDF accused Syrian regime forces of firing mortar shells at their positions in the town of Kobar, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, according to a statement the faction posted online.

An SDF fighter in Sour on Sunday. Photo courtesy of ANHA.

The alleged mortar fire followed a reported Russian airstrike last month that injured several SDF fighters east of the river. The Russian government later denied the attack.

The two sides are waging separate battles in Deir e-Zor province, though the Syrian regime, backed by Russian airstrikes, are currently focused on Deir e-Zor city, just east of the SDF frontline against IS.

Last month, Syrian regime forces broke through a three-year Islamic State siege of two holdout government districts of the city proper, including a military airport. Less than one week later, the SDF swept downward from their positions in northern Deir e-Zor province, advancing across more than 50 kilometers of Islamic State territory toward the eastern banks of the Euphrates.

The two advances put the two sides in direct proximity of each other near Deir e-Zor city and raised concerns of a confrontation between the SDF and regime forces on the ground as both battle to drive out IS.

Today, SDF spokeswoman Leilawa al-Abdullah maintains that there still “haven’t been any skirmishes with the Russians or the regime” on the ground, she told Syria Direct.

“But if they attack us,” said SDF commander Bassem Aziz, “we will respond.”

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.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.