The US and Russia have agreed on zones of operation around the Euphrates river in Syria, where different forces are going after ISIS, according to the outgoing commander of the US-led coalition fighting the terrorist group.
“We have lines that are agreed to,” General Stephen Townsend, commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, said during a news conference on Thursday. It was Townsend’s last briefing from Baghdad, as he prepared to hand over command to General Paul Funk of the 3rd Armored Corps.
“We’ve established some measures south of Raqqa. Those measures extend to the east,” he said when asked about the “deconfliction” between US-backed forces and Russian-backed Syrian government troops in the middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV).
The measures “have held since mid-June, and we haven’t had friction,” Townsend stated, adding that discussions were held on Wednesday to make sure the forces didn’t trip over each other as they advanced on Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS/ISIL) terrorist group .
In June, the US-led coalition shot down a Syrian military jet, claiming it dropped bombs near US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Syrian military said it was targeting IS terrorists.
Following the incident, the Russian Defense Ministry said warplanes from the US-led coalition operating over Syrian government-controlled areas west of the Euphrates River would be tracked as potential targets.
Townsend also told reporters that the US had hit “every ISIS fighter and vehicle” that tried to approach a convoy in Syria which was headed towards IS-held territory near the Iraqi border this week.
More than 300 IS fighters and about 300 family members were evacuated from Syria’s western border with Lebanon, under a surrender agreement brokered by the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which the US considers a terrorist organization.
“We didn’t make a deal with ISIS,” Townsend said. “When we see ISIS coming out of their holes and making themselves a target, we’ll take advantage of that.” So far, the coalition has not hit the convoy itself, the general added.
While acknowledging that US-backed Syrian fighters did make similar arrangements for IS terrorists to evacuate from the city of Manbij last year, Townsend pointed out that the US “slaughtered” a convoy of IS fighters who tried to leave Fallujah, Iraq, last June.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who had called the departure of IS terrorists from the area near Lebanon border “a day of liberation,” said on Thursday that Syrian President Bashar Assad had only reluctantly agreed to allow the evacuation of the IS terrorists through Syria, after Nasrallah visited Damascus to request it, according to Reuters.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, however, said it was “unacceptable” to ferry more jihadist fighters from another battlefront in Syria to the edge of Iraqi territory.
US Special Envoy for Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk echoed that position on Wednesday.
— Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) August 30, 2017
The Pentagon said the coalition’s goal is to annihilate IS.
The infamous IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is likely alive and hiding in the Middle Euphrates River Valley between Iraq and Syria, Townsend said.
“That’s just an educated guess, made after doing this for a year and scratching off the list [of places al-Baghdadi has not been found]; he’s not in Mosul, he is not in Tal Afar, he is not in Raqqa.”
Townsend explained there were “indicators in intelligence” that Baghdadi is alive and that coalition forces were looking for him.
In June, the Russian Defense Ministry said Baghdadi had been likely killed as a result of a Russian strike on Raqqa in late May, adding that it was in the process of confirming the information.
Baghdadi appeared in the media for the first time in 2014, when he declared the creation of a “caliphate” in the Middle East. Numerous reports about his death since have never been confirmed.