Dozens killed in US strikes on pro-Assad forces in Syria

Damascus and Moscow condemn attack as weakening of Islamic State threatens alliances

A man holds a child after an air strike in the besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta, near Damascus on  Wednesday. Photograph:  Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

A man holds a child after an air strike in the besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta, near Damascus on Wednesday. Photograph: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

 

The US-led coalition has killed dozens of fighters loyal to president Bashar al-Assad in a rare use of air strikes against Syrian government-backed forces. The coalition said the strikes had been carried out to defend its allies.

Forty-five fighters were killed as regime forces tried to advance towards an oil-rich part of eastern Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, said on Thursday. US officials told Reuters that the death toll had reached 100 as the coalition repelled the offensive, which it said had taken place on Wednesday.

The Damascus regime and Russia, Mr Assad’s main foreign backer, have condemned the attack, with the strikes underlining the risk of a direct confrontation between international players in a multisided war. The US-led coalition backs a Kurdish-dominated ground force in eastern Syria, which has an increasingly uneasy and sometimes antagonistic relationship with Mr Assad, who is also backed by Iran.

Both of these rival alliances are ostensibly fighting Islamic State, also known as Isis but, with the jihadi group’s territorial control all but finished, and the resources it once controlled falling into the hands of competing forces, the risk of these two sides turning on each other has grown. Fighters on both sides have warned that the emerging tension has already given room for Islamic State to start regrouping in parts of Syria.

“The coalition conducted strikes against attacking forces to repel the act of aggression against partners engaged in the global coalition’s defeat-Daesh mission,” the coalition said in a statement, using the alternative term “Daesh” for the jihadi group.

The Pentagon said it was not looking for conflict with the Syrian regime, Reuters reported.

Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s UN envoy, told reporters that the coalition strikes were “very regrettable”. He said he would raise the issue at a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday.

Coalition warplanes and artillery hit the pro-Assad forces as they advanced across the Euphrates river into areas held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the observatory said. The government forces, supported by tanks and artillery, were targeting SDF forces near oilfields in Deir Ezzor province east of the Euphrates.

Syria’s state news agency, Sana, called the attack a new attempt to “support terrorism”. The foreign ministry sent two letters to the UN condemning the aggression as a war crime and arguing that it showed the “dirty US intentions against Syria’s sovereignty and territorial unity”.

Iranian presence

Many local forces and regional observers fear tension will rise in eastern Syria, particularly after a speech last month by Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state. He said US forces would remain for an indefinite period and described US interests as not only defeating Islamic State, but countering an increasing Iranian presence. Tehran-backed militias have bolstered the Syrian army in the east.

Syria is in its seventh year of a conflict that has long since devolved into a multisided war. The chaos unleashed in the original rebellion to topple Mr Assad gave room for jihadist groups such as Islamic State, as well as the Kurdish forces that are now US partners trying to establish their own enclaves.

This is not the first time US-led forces have struck the regime. In June, the coalition shot down a Syrian warplane near Raqqa, accusing it of getting too close to its local ground forces. In southeast Syria, the US fired at Iranian-backed militias that were advancing toward the southeastern base of al-Tanf that it holds near the border with Iraq and Jordan. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018