US Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks at the White House in November. File photo: Jim Watson | AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — The United States has called it a “mistake” for anyone to violate the crossing of the demarcation line that separates US-led international coalition backed partners from Bashar al-Assad loyalist forces supported by Russia, while denying that coalition partnered forces have clashed with Assad regime allies.
"Well, right now, it's a mistake if somebody does it. So it's not a warning to anybody," US Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Friday.
Mattis was asked whether Assad has been warned not to cross the demarcation line which runs roughly along the Euphrates.
"This is the demarcation line, and we've said that we will operate on one side, the Russians on the other. And we're still taking ISIS down," said Mattis. “Nothing has changed."
The Syrian Democratic Forces are the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS's primary local ground partners in Syria. An official SDF statement on December 23 said they were shelled by forces loyal to Assad on the east bank [coalition side] of the Euphrates River.
"Amid fierce battles against [ISIS] in the countryside of Deir ez-Zor, the regime and its militias tried to block the progress of the fighters by shelling," read the statement reporting "heavy weapons" shelling occurred on the east bank of the Euphrates in the Deir ez-Zor suburb of Al-Basira, according the SDF, was recently liberated.
In this area the coalition has said the line runs "roughly along the Euphrates."
Mattis denied that US-backed forces have engaged "Assad forces" crossing the demarcation line.
"It hasn't come up," said Mattis. "They're not even trying it. So I'm not concerned..."
Responding generally to a Rudaw English query on December 23, the Coalition said they have "made it clear to all parties publically and through the de-confliction line that any demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces toward Coalition and partner forces in Syria conducting legitimate counter-ISIS operations will not be tolerated.
Although the coalition vets Syrians of diverse backgrounds for membership in the SDF umbrella, the backbone of the force is the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG).
"The fight is still ongoing in Syria..." wrote US Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk in a yearly update letter to coalition partners on Friday.” SDF units are engaged in operations to remove ISIS from the Euphrates River Valley, and we anticipate these operations will continue over the first quarter of 2018."
McGurk and Mattis have both announced that "more diplomats" and contractors will be working in Syria for the "initial restoration of services."
The US has acknowledged the presence of about 2,000 US military members Syria.
While committed to the "defeat of ISIS," Mattis also separated the ISIS conflict that arose in 2014 from the Syrian civil war that began in 2011.
"Assad’s record in this civil war is pretty well known – set the conditions, in many ways, for the disarray that allowed ISIS to rise," he said.
Despite a failure to find a peaceful end to the Syrian civil war through the United Nations in Geneva or Turkey-Russia-Iran brokered talks in Astana, the US remains committed to the UN process.
"[T]his is why the diplomats in Geneva have got to get this thing resolved," Mattis urged.