As predicted in June of this year, ISIS’ last stand in Syria will take place in a strategic oil-rich region known as Deir ez-Zor, and this confrontation will pit the American military and its allied forces directly against the Syrian Arab Army and its backers, including Russia.
Over the last few days, this potential clash has been brought ever closer to fruition. Reuters first reported on Monday that the Syrian Arab Army and its allies were beginning to encircle ISIS in Deir ez-Zor. The outlet then reported that the Syrian army had encircled ISIS in the region some days later and had begun to advance.
As Reuters noted in a separate report, Bashar al-Assad wants to “steal a march” on U.S.-backed militias in the attack on Deir ez-Zor, which are also vying to take control of the territory. The Assad administration also made it clear that as this stage of the Syrian war draws to a close, the Syrian army will target “any illegal presence” on its land, “whether being that of the United States or Turkey” – two countries that have illegally invaded Syrian territory over the course of the conflict.
“What we are hoping to avoid is the outbreak of a civil war, because you know what we really have is two conflicts in Syria: the war against ISIS and the civil war that created the conditions for ISIS to emerge,” Tillerson said. “Again we’re working closely with Russia and other parties to see if we can agree on a path forward on how to stabilize Syria in the post-ISIS world.”
If Assad’s forces beat the U.S. military to the punch — backed by Russian airpower and Iranian manpower (and potential missile power) — the U.S. will most likely have to make a life-threatening decision regarding whether to continue down this path and confront Assad’s Russian-backed military or find another road to venture down.
As it stands, the U.S. military under Barack Obama’s leadership bombed the Syrian army last year in this exact region, paving the way for a timely ISIS offensive. Even now, as the Syrian army continues its advance towards Deir Ez-Zor, regional outlet Al-Masdar’s Leith Abou Fadel reports that the U.S.-led coalition has been bombing the Syrian Arab Army in the front lines against ISIS in southern Raqqa, as well.
Whatever else the U.S. may have up its sleeve at this point is unclear, but the likelihood of this conflict evolving into a full-blown U.S.-Russian proxy war — exactly the opposite of what Tillerson has vowed to avoid – continues to increase. Typically, the U.S. doesn’t back down from a situation it has already lost until it has completely destroyed as much of the territory in question as possible.
That being said, Russia is also bombing the same territory with interests that conflict with the United States’, meaning all bets are off the table until further notice.