BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's military launched a new assault Tuesday aimed at reasserting its authority in the east of the country, battling U.S.-backed opposition fighters in the remote desert near the borders with Iraq and Jordan. The government forces' ultimate goal is to insert itself in the fight against the Islamic State group in the oil-rich region.
The government offensive came as the Trump administration announced it would arm Syria's Kurdish fighters "as necessary" to recapture the key Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. The decision is meant to accelerate the Raqqa operation, but is strongly opposed by key NATO ally Turkey, which sees the Syrian Kurdish group, known as the YPG, as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency raging in its southeast.
The decision is likely to complicate the way going forward, as the U.S. has deployed additional troops to act as a buffer between Syria's Kurds and Turkey along the country's northern border.
Dana W. White, the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman, said in a written statement that President Donald Trump's authorization of arms to the Syrian Kurds gives the Pentagon the go-ahead to "equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS" in Raqqa. The U.S. sees the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which also includes Arab fighters, as its most effective battlefield partner against IS in northern and eastern Syria.
The statement did not specify the kinds of arms to be provided, but other officials have indicated that 120mm mortars, machine guns, ammunition and light armored vehicles were possibilities. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss the matter, said the U.S. would not provide artillery or surface-to-air missiles.
Tuesday's offensive in the east opens another front against IS, this time pitting the U.S.- and Western-backed rebels against Syrian government forces and allied fighters. The clashes are part of a race for control of an area that stretches from the provincial capital of Deir el-Zour in northeastern Syria to the border with Iraq, where an estimated 10,000 IS fighters uprooted from Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, have been massing.
"Now the direction and main goal is to reach Deir el-Zour," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Monday, adding that the Syrian government's next target will likely be to reach the border with Iraq. "The priority now is what is happening in the desert, whether south, along the border with Jordan, or in the central desert or toward the borders with Iraq."
The declaration was coupled with an aggressive Syrian state media campaign against the U.S. presence in neighboring Jordan, where an annual U.S.-Jordanian military drill known as "Eager Lion" was taking place. About 7,400 troops from more than 20 nations were taking part in the drill, Jordan's state-run Petra news agency said.
Syrian government forces have kept a presence in Deir el-Zour— most of which was taken over by IS in 2014— holding onto an airport there at a high cost. It will not allow Western-backed rebels to turn it into some "rival power base or source of reserve leverage," said Sam Heller, a Syria expert with the Century Foundation.
"I don't think a U.S.- and Jordanian-backed rebel offensive on Deir el-Zour is imminent, or even really viable. But Damascus and its allies nonetheless seem to view it as threatening and unwelcome, and they're probably happy to preemptively undercut it," Heller said.
Syrian media were rife with reports about an imminent Russian-backed Syrian military operation in the east. The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said the Syrian army and its allies have completed the first phase of an operation aimed at securing the Syrian-Iraqi border, advancing some 45 kilometers (30 miles) and seizing an area that puts government forces between IS and the rebels.
Western-backed Syrian rebel groups have made quiet advances against IS in the large swath of desert south of Palmyra and west of Deir el-Zour, along the border with Jordan. A rebel faction known as the Eastern Lions responded to the government advance by moving west and attacking a government-held military base.
"It is a race to Deir el-Zour," said Tlas al-Salameh, the commander of the Eastern Lions, which is backed by Jordan and the U.S. "The Iranian and Hezbollah militias are in the operation because it concerns them to secure a land route from Beirut to Iran that goes through Damascus and Baghdad, and they want to block our way to Deir el-Zour," he said.
Omar Abu Leila, an exiled activist from Deir el-Zour, said retaking the provincial capital will not be easy. Even if the government forces manage to push the rebels aside, once they reach the city they will face an estimated 10,000 IS fighters defending their "last fortress."
But opening a new front against IS might speed the extremists' defeat. "The fight can't be only in Mosul and Raqqa. It must be on the Deir el-Zour front as well," he said. "The three fronts distract IS."
Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.