* Deir al-Zor fighters move to within 3 km of Euphrates
* Aim to capture and run the eastern bank, including oil fields
* Warn government forces against firing across the river
By Tom Perry and Sarah Dadouch
BEIRUT, Sept 15 (Reuters) - U.S.-backed Syrian militias will not let government forces cross the Euphrates River in their bid to recover eastern Syria, setting a red line for President Bashar al-Assad as both sides converge on Islamic State in Deir al-Zor, their commander said.
Militia commander Abu Khawla said a civilian administration would be set up to run areas of Deir al-Zor province being captured from Islamic State by his fighters, including its oil fields. The Syrian government was “not fit to lead and rule the people”, he said.
The Deir al-Zor military council, fighting as part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has advanced towards Deir al-Zor from the eastern side of the Euphrates River since launching an offensive into the province a week ago.
Government forces, supported by the Russian air force and Iran-backed militias, have simultaneously advanced into Deir al-Zor from the west. Last week, they broke an Islamic State siege of the provincial capital, Deir al-Zor city, which sits on the western bank of the river.
Deir al-Zor province is Islamic State’s last major foothold in Syria and Iraq. Rich in oil, it is bisected by the Euphrates River and abuts Iraq.
The Russian- and U.S.-backed campaigns against Islamic State in Syria have mostly stayed out of each other’s way as the sides seek to avoid conflict, with the Euphrates often acting as a dividing line between the sides. Talks have been underway to extend a formal demarcation line that has separated the campaigns, officials have said.
Abu Khawla warned government forces and their militia allies against firing across the river as his fighters close in - something he said had happened in recent days.
“Now we have 3 km between us and the eastern riverbank, once our forces reach the area, any shot fired into that area we will consider an attack on the military council,” he said.
“We have notified the regime and Russia that we are coming to the Euphrates riverbank, and they can see our forces advancing,” he said. “We do not allow the regime or its militias to cross to the eastern riverbank.”
“MOVING FORCEFULLY AND QUICKLY”
“Every village around the eastern riverbank of the Euphrates river until the Iraqi-Syrian border is a goal for our forces,” he said. “We are moving forcefully and quickly. We do not have a timeline, but we hope soon to free the entire eastern bank.”
Reflecting the demarcation line, the U.S.-led coalition said on Thursday the SDF was not planning to enter Deir al-Zor city.
But while Deir al-Zor city was not an SDF target, Abu Khawla did not rule out the possibility that it may become one, saying people in the city wanted to be liberated from “the regime and Daesh at the same time”.
But “right now, we have a schedule that we’re following which is the liberation of the eastern riverbanks of the Euphrates”, he said.
He said Islamic State had “shown fierce resistance” when SDF fighters entered the outskirts of Deir al-Zor on the eastern bank of the Euphrates. “The battles are continuous,” he said.
Abu Khawla, who is in his early 30s, said 10,000 fighters were taking part in the Deir al-Zor campaign, the bulk of them members of Arab tribes from eastern Syria. The campaign is supported by the Kurdish militia that dominate the SDF.
“All our soldiers’ training (is) in the Coalition training camps, they oversee our training and our armament,” he said.
Abu Khawla was a member of a Free Syrian Army rebel group in Deir al-Zor until Islamic State took over most of the province in 2014 at the height of its expansion in Syria and Iraq. He fled to Turkey before returning to Syria and joining the SDF.
“Now we are setting up a civil council parallel to the military council of Deir al-Zor, and this civilian council will run all areas freed from (Islamic State),” he said. (Writing by Tom Perry; editing by Ralph Boulton)