BEIRUT: US-backed Syrian fighters captured on Saturday the country’s largest gas field — a pre-war gas treatment facility — from the Daesh militant group in an eastern province of Deir Ezzor that borders Iraq as they race with government forces to capture the energy-rich region, a senior official with the group and monitor said.
“The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Deir Ezzor Military Council were able to take control of the Conoco plant in northern Deir Ezzor province after two days of clashes,” SDF spokesman Talal Sello said in a statement.
Nasser Hajj Mansour of the SDF said the Conoco gas field and plant came under full control of the group on Saturday morning after days of fighting with the extremists. He added that SDF fighters also captured the nearby Al-Izba gas field.
Another SDF spokesman, Brig. Gen. Talal Sillo, said the fighting in the area left 65 Daesh fighters dead while more than 100 gunmen surrendered. He added that Daesh had been controlling Conoco since 2014.
Sillo said that SDF fighters marched toward the field from the nearby village of Khsham under the cover of airstrikes by the US-led coalition.
The SDF did not confirm that the gas field had been captured, saying only that its forces were “combing the plant and surrounding points.”
The advance in the resource-rich province was confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, which added that the militia had also captured the adjacent gas field.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war in Syria with activists on the ground, reported later that SDF fighters took full control of the field in the province of Deir Ezzor. It said Daesh fighters are launching a counteroffensive to retake the field.
SDF fighters have been marching on the east bank of the Euphrates River in Deir Ezzor while Syrian troops are gaining in areas on the west bank of the river under the cover of Russian airstrikes. Earlier this week, Syrian troops crossed into parts of east bank but have concentrated their operations mostly on the west.
On Thursday, Russia warned against targeting its special forces in Deir Ezzor raising concerns over direct clashes between rival forces backed by Moscow and Washington fighting for the energy-wealthy region.
The warning was followed by an acknowledgement from the Pentagon of an unprecedented face-to-face meeting between Russian and American military leaders, which occurred inside or near Syria, to address the rising tensions.
Russia has been a main backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and joined the war two years ago tipping the balance of power in his favor.
Deir Ezzor is a province rich in oil and gas and both sides have been racing to reach the fields. The next main target will be Al-Omar oil field that is Syria’s largest and is also on the east bank of the Euphrates, and Syrian government forces are also speeding to capture it. Oil revenues are badly needed for future reconstruction of Syria that has been plagued by war since 2011.
The facility known as the Conoco plant had the largest capacity of any in Syria before the conflict erupted in 2011: 13 million cubic meters of natural gas per day, according to The Syria Report, an economic digest. It was constructed by a partnership of ConocoPhilips and Total, and came up to full capacity in 2002.
In 2005, it was handed over to the state-run Syrian Gas Company when Conoco withdrew from the country.
The plant and adjacent gas field were first captured by rebels in late 2012, a year into the uprising that began with anti-government protests in March 2011.
In 2014, the Islamic State group captured the facility and gas field as it rampaged across parts of Syria and Iraq, seizing large stretches of territory that it eventually declared its “caliphate”.
The US-backed SDF and its Deir Ezzor Military Council are battling IS on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river that slices diagonally across Deir Ezzor province.
Syria’s army, backed by Russian firepower, is carrying out a separate operation largely on the western bank of the river, including in the provincial capital Deir Ezzor city.
Deir Ezzor province, on Syria’s eastern border with Iraq, is rich with oil and gas fields that served as a key revenue stream for IS at the peak of its power.
Syria’s Kurds have captured key oil fields in the country in recent years, including in Rmeilan in Hasakeh, where they are refining crude.