The U.S.-led coalition bombed a convoy allied with the Syrian government Thursday after the convoy advanced too close to a base where American and British special forces train rebel fighters.
“A convoy going down the road didn’t respond to numerous ways for it to be warned off from getting too close to coalition forces” before it was struck, a U.S. official said.
The convoy of 27 tanks was struck by American jets when it moved within 15 miles of a coalition garrison at al-Tanf, a city in Southern Syria near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders.
In recent days, Syrian forces, along with Iranian and allied Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, moved weapons closer to their front line with Free Syrian Army (FSA) units, including surface-to-air missiles. That was in an apparent warning to the coalition, who trains the FSA militants to fight ISIS and carries out air raids on the radical group in the area.
The convoy didn’t turn around after several attempts to force it to do so.
“Then there was finally a strike against the lead portion of that movement,” the official said, referring to vehicles at the front of the convoy.
Tanf is a strategically important area for both the Syrian regime and the American-led coalition, the former seeking to recapture the Damascus-Baghdad highway in order to link the regime to its Iraqi allies, and the latter using the city as a hub for its special forces training operations. The coalition hopes to use the fighters it trains to launch an assault on the ISIS-held city of Deir Ezzor.
A spokesman for the FSA’s Maghawir al-Thawra brigade, Mozahem al-Saloum, told the Telegraph that the fighters are trained to only fight the Islamic State, but were forced to “defensively” engage with the pro-regime forces.
“The regime and Iranians were not supposed to approach, yet today, the regime decided that they want to take over the al-Tanf border line and a main crossing point there, that’s when the SAA (Syrian Arab Army) and Iranians clashed [with] our troops,” al-Saloum added.
Russian and Syrian officials denounced the attack.
“It is illegitimate, it is unlawful and the latest gross violation of the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, according to Tass, the Russian state-run news agency.
Though U.S. defense officials said Thursday that the convoy did not heed warnings to turn around, the Syrian state responded that the U.S. had no right to defend a base established without the permission of the sovereign government of Syria, nor to declare any area “off limits” to pro-regime forces.
The pro-Syrian regime militia, Sayyid al-Shuada, or the “Master of Martyrs,” released a statement condemning the attack and accusing the Americans of interfering in their operations against ISIS. The militia is also active in Iraq.
“Targeting our presence in Syria is targeting us in Iraq, too, and we will strike the enemy and its supporters everywhere,” the statement said.
Thursday’s assault on pro-regime forces was not the first; last September American planes bombed a Syrian government position near Deir Ezzor, reportedly killing more than 80 soldiers. Washington claims that strike was a result of a mis-identification of the troops stationed there, but the Syrian and Russian governments maintain the strike was intentional.
Subsequent reporting, however, has revealed discrepancies in the coalition’s account of the September strike:
The summary report on an investigation into U.S. and allied air strikes on Syrian government troops has revealed irregularities in decision-making consistent with a deliberate targeting of Syrian forces.
The report, released by U.S. Central Command on 29 November, shows that senior U.S. Air Force officers at the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar, who were responsible for the decision to carry out the September airstrike at Deir Ezzor:
• misled the Russians about where the US intended to strike so Russia could not warn that it was targeting Syrian troops
• ignored information and intelligence analysis warning that the positions to be struck were Syrian government rather than Islamic State
• shifted abruptly from a deliberate targeting process to an immediate strike in violation of normal Air Force procedures
The strikes led to a collapse of a ceasefire agreement then in place, a move both the Syrian and Russian governments believe was deliberate.
In the latest attack on pro-regime forces, the United States has once again created unnecessary risk of confrontation with the Syrian government, adding to an already tense relationship between the two countries.
The American coalition and the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance both share the goal of expelling the Islamic state from its urban strongholds in Syria, but significant cooperation between the two camps remains highly unlikely after the incident on Thursday.
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