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Syrian Regime Races Against U.S.-Backed Rebel Forces To Take ISIS Enclave


ISIS is being pushed out of parts of Syria. That's leading to a race between the forces taking that territory, forces backed by the U.S. and forces backed by the Syrian government. Whoever wins the strategic province of Deir ez-Zor will get a wealth of resources but will risk being locked into a longer war. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.


RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: ISIS are on the retreat. This video posted online by pro-regime media shows Syrian soldiers as they break a near three-year siege on the city of Deir ez-Zor. The Syrian government heralded the man who led the offensive, General Issam Zahreddine, as a national hero and vowed to take the rest of the province.


SHERLOCK: There are videos posted online by supporters in which patriotic music blasts over footage of Zahreddine moving slow-motion like an action hero and his soldiers locked in combat with the jihadists.


SHERLOCK: The U.S. has tried to keep its war in ISIS separate from that of the Syrian regime, whose leader, Bashar al-Assad, it calls a war criminal. But this week the Syrian Democratic Forces, rebels trained and supplied by the U.S., suddenly launched their own offensive in Deir ez-Zor province, too. As they swept in from the northeast, they celebrated gains against the jihadists. The group posted videos of their soldiers locked in step in the traditional Syrian dabke dance.


SHERLOCK: Now the regime and the rebels are only miles apart, separated just by the thin blue line of the Euphrates River. The Syrian government has opposed the rebels' move into Deir ez-Zor, seeing it as a land grab of valuable terrain. Deir ez-Zor is remote but important. It's home to vast oil fields and a border crossing into Iraq that is part of an important trade route. Whoever controls this area will have a greater say in the future of Syria. The U.S. has long said it only wants to be in Syria to fight ISIS. Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, won't call this a race. But he said that the situation in Deir ez-Zor is uncharted territory.

COLONEL RYAN DILLON: I think the first time we are seeing a convergence of both the Syrian Democratic Forces and the regime is here in Deir ez-Zor.

SHERLOCK: Local residents warn both sides will find the province harder to rule than they think.

MZAHEM AL-SALOUM: It's very, very sensitive situation, very dangerous situation. That's it.

SHERLOCK: Mzahem Al-Saloum fled his town in Deir ez-Zor province when ISIS took control and now runs a Facebook page posting information on the area. He explains that the largely Sunni Arab population doesn't want to welcome either the Shia militias used by the regime or the largely Kurdish forces backed by the United States. He says either side taking the area could mean more war.

AL-SALOUM: Yes, in five years, we will have another conflict. And this another conflict will become another type of civil war.

SHERLOCK: Nicholas Heras, a Middle East fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, says the U.S. could have to back forces in Deir ez-Zor for years to come.

NICHOLAS HERAS: The question then becomes, well, how long does the U.S. military need to keep a residual force inside of the areas of Syria that are conquered?

SHERLOCK: For now it looks like the U.S.-backed forces and the Syrian-backed forces will conquer different territory but may well have to keep fighting. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.