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Russians may hit US-backed forces in Syria 'if provoked'

US and Russian officials have addressed the rising tensions in Syria, as the war enters a critical new phase. Washington and Moscow-backed military groups are both set on securing the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour.

Russian military officials issued a blunt warning to the US on Thursday, saying they would target American special forces and US-backed militia groups in Syria if their own forces came under fire from them.

"A representative of the US military command in Al Udeid (the US command center in Qatar) was told in no uncertain terms that any attempts to open fire from areas where Syrian Democratic Forces are located would be quickly shut down," Major-General Igor Konashenkov wrote in a statement.

The SDF, or Syrian Democratic Forces, refers to an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias combating the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) group in Syria as part of the US-led coalition.

Read more: US-backed forces in Syria race to capture Deir el-Zour

Konashenkov's warning came after US and Russian military officials held unprecedented face-to-face talks in Syria to address the heightened tensions around the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour, where both US and Russian-backed forces are fighting to capture one of the last remaining IS strongholds.

Watch video 01:45

SDF move into IS stronghold of Raqqa

Syrian government forces, backed by Moscow, are desperate to claim the province and use its natural resources to help rebuild the economy as the six year civil war slowly begins to unwind.

However, most militiamen fighting for the US-backed SDF forces are from the province and do not want to see Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime restore his claim to the region. Many Kurdish fighters want the region to be part of their own autonomous zone in a federated Syrian republic.

A series of provocations

Konashenkov claimed in his statement that his forces had recently come under fire twice from US-backed troops in as many days, prompting the warning of future retaliation.

However, Ahmad Abu Khawla, the commanding officer of SDF forces in Deir el-Zour, denied ever targeting pro-government forces. "We are far from them, Daesh is between us," he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS. "We didn't fire a single bullet toward the regime" forces.

The SDF earlier this week accused Russian aircraft on Saturday of carrying out air strikes on its members.

Military advances on Deir el-Zour

IS has been fighting a losing ,two-front battle in Deir el-Zour against both the SDF and Syrian government forces, as it tries to defend one of its last strongholds.

The Syrian army's advances on Deir el-Zour have seen it capture around 100 kilometers of the west bank of the Euphrates so far this month, while the SDF's advances have been mainly on the eastern bank of the river.

Read more: Fighting rages on in Syria's Deir el-Zour

The two sides have generally avoided conflict since the outbreak of the war, with Assad initially concentrating efforts on defeating a revolt against his family's 40 year rule over Syria, before focusing on wiping out IS. 

That balance had held before the two sides reached Deir el-Zour, where conflicting interests have become apparent.

Space for further US-Russia cooperation?

Despite the heightened tensions, Thursday's meeting also suggested that the US and Russia could be seeking to coordinate their efforts in Syria.

Speaking to Pentagon reporters, on Thursday, Army Colonel Ryan Dillon said that US and Russian forces had shared maps, graphics and information over where their respective forces were fighting around Deir el-Zour.

Asked about alleged turbulence between the US and Russia, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters: "I am not worried, we continue to deal with the Russians in a collaborative way, we'll sort this out."

Watch video 00:35

US, Russia agree on ceasefire in south Syria

dm/rc (AP, Reuters)

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