Russia has warned the United States that it will retaliate immediately if Syrian government forces come under fire from positions held by a US-backed, Kurdish-led militia in eastern Syria.
Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov made the comments in a statement on Sept. 21, five days after the US-led coalition said Russian jets struck Syrian Democratic Forces fighters in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, wounding several of them.
His remarks came amid rising concerns of a confrontation on the ground between Russia-backed Syrian government forces and the US-backed forces fighting the Islamic State militants who captured large swathes of Syrian territory in 2014.
Konashenkov said that SDF forces had taken up positions on the east bank of the Euphrates River with US special operations forces, and that Syrian troops operating alongside Russian special forces near the city of Deir al-Zor were “twice targeted with massive fire from mortar launchers and rocket artillery” from the SDF positions.
A representative of the US military command in Qatar was “notified in severe form that attempts to attack from districts where SDF fighters are located will be repelled,” Konashenkov said, adding, “Fire positions in these areas will be immediately suppressed with all available weapons.”
Ahmed Abu Khawla, an SDF commander whose unit is leading the fight in the Deir al-Zor Province, denied Russian accusations of shelling and accused Moscow of seeking to obstruct the US-backed advance, the Associated Press news agency reported.
The United States and Russia back separate military offensives in the Syrian war, both of which are advancing against IS militants in the east of the country near Iraq.
The government forces, backed by Russia and Iranian-allied militiamen, have gained control of most of the city of Deir al-Zor.
The SDF, supported by US-led coalition air cover, said on Sept. 20 that its campaign to capture the IS stronghold of Raqqa, north of Deir al-Zor, was in its final stages and that its fighters had seized 80 percent of the city.
Konashenkov claimed that Russian intelligence shows the coalition’s operation in Raqqa had stopped and that SDF fighters redeployed from there to Deir al-Zor. He did not provide evidence.
He also said that a Syrian government offensive captured two villages on the west bank of the Euphrates overnight, taking about 16 square kilometers of land.
On Sept. 16, the US-led coalition said the Russian warplanes struck SDF forces in Deir al-Zor Province, wounding several fighters. The Russian Defense Ministry denied it.