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

Syrian state media said government forces have broken the "Islamic State" (IS) group's siege of the airport to the eastern city of Deir el-Zour. The risk of a clash with US-backed Kurdish SDF forces has grown.

Syria's SANA news agency reported on Saturday that government forces had broken the siege on two Deir el-Zour neighborhoods as well.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said it had reports that pro-government forces had opened an artery to the airport, besieged by IS militants since early this year.

The predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced Saturday they had launched military operations against IS in eastern Syria, increasing the possibility of conflict with rival, Russian-backed government forces running their own operations in the same area.


Control of the border

Control of the border will shape regional dynamics going forward. Since Syria descended into civil war in March of 2011, President Bashar al-Assad has relied heavily on Iran, which has sent thousands of fighters and advisers to help fend off multiple rebel groups seeking to topple him.

Washington, however, has considerable influence in northeastern Syria, where hundreds of US troops and advisers are aiding the SDF.

The US-backed fighters are still battling to liberate Raqqa from IS control.

After three months of fighting, the SDF has liberated about 60 percent of Raqqa, which lies about 85 miles (140 km) to the northwest of Deir el-Zour and 165 miles from the Syrian-Iraqi border.

While the SDF forces are expected to prevail in Raqqa, many experts believe more difficult fighting lies ahead.

Nawaf Khalil, a Syrian Kurdish representative based in Germany who frequently visits northern Syria, said the SDF no longer needed a large number of fighters in Raqqa, freeing them up for battle elsewhere.

"Deir el-Zour is a main connection point and a very important geographic area," Khalil said.

The arrival of Syrian troops in Deir el-Zour this week ended a nearly three-year-old siege by IS militants on government-held parts of the city. The Syrian military issued a victory statement, saying the city would be used as a launching pad to liberate other IS-held areas along the Iraqi border.

bik/jm (AP, Reuters)

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