A frosty relationship between the U.S.-led coalition and the Moscow-backed Syrian government grew colder Wednesday as forces at Deir ez-Zor Governorate in eastern Syria carried out a series of air and artillery strikes against pro-Assad troops over a three-hour period.
The combat missions were conducted along the River Euphrates, an area of which both Russia and the U.S. consider an informal demarcation line to conduct military operations in Syria.
Over 100 troops loyal to Syrian strongman, President Bashar al-Assad, were reported killed.
“Coalition service members in an advise, assist, and accompany capacity were co-located with SDF partners during the attack,” read a U.S. Central Command statement.
Both the Kremlin and Damascus have denounced the airstrikes, with Syria calling it “support for terrorism” and a “crime against humanity.” Demascus lodged a complaint against the action with the UN.
According to U.S. sources, a pro-Assad force numbering approximately 500 attacked a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) outpost five miles east of Deir Ezzor in an established deconfliction zone with artillery. No Americans were injured during the attack.
“Pro-regime forces initiated hostilities with artillery pieces (howitzers). Additionally, Syrian pro-regime forces maneuvered T-55 and T-72 main battle tanks with supporting mortar fire in what appears to be a co-ordinated attack on Syrian Democratic Forces approximately five miles east of the Euphrates River de-confliction line in Khusham, Syria,” said coalition spokesman Colonel Thomas F. Veale.
Following the airstrikes and artillery bombardment, Moscow, Damascus and Washington traded accusations: The Kremlin blamed SDF forces for failing to inform Damascus of its movements. In contrast, the U.S. claimed it informed Russia of its retaliatory action prior to hitting the pro-Assad positions.
Responding to the attacks, the Kremlin and Russian Ministry of Defense said the U.S.-coalition strike was aiming to secure “economic assets” in eastern Syria. Under control of U.S.-backed SDF troops, America considers the region east of the Euphrates and its gas-rich oil fields under its influence.
“Once again [it] shows that the United States’ illegal military presence in Syria is actually aimed at taking control of the country’s economic assets and not fighting against the ISIL international terror group.”
“A pro-government militia unit was conducting surveillance and research activities near the al-Isba oil refinery (17 kilometers southeast of the Salhiyah settlement) to eliminate a militant group shelling the positions of government troops,” read a Russian MOD statement responding to the attacks.
While Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) of the armed services and foreign relations committees said he is “gravely concerned that the Trump administration is purposefully stumbling into a broader conflict”, Defense Sec. Jim Mattis has denied the general accusation, calling it a “self-defense,” move.
One day prior to the clash, the UN demanded a complete halt to military action in Syria following weeks of intensive fighting around Damascus. The UN’s concern stems from the relentless bombardment of Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, in which hundreds have been reported killed and heavy fighting in Idlib.
The UN’s plea follows comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who ramped up criticism of the U.S., saying Washington is pursuing a policy in Syria of which the end is partitioning the country.
The U.S., Russia and Turkey all maintain contingents of troops inside Syria. The U.S. backs anti-Assad SDF forces; the Kremlin supports the Assad regime; and Turkey is currently engaged in battle with Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
[AP] [The Independent] [Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty] [Moscow Times] [TASS] [Reuters] [RT] [Photo courtesy SANA via AP/NPR]