US-led coalition hit ‘Iranian-directed’ convoy in Syria: official

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US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that the Syrian-backed forces, which were hit by the US air strikes this week, appeared to be directed by Iranians but unclear whether the force included Iranian units.

The US-led coalition said Thursday that a US airstrike hit pro-Syrian government forces it said posed a threat to American troops and allied rebels operating near the border with Jordan.

The attack comes at a time when the US presence in Syria is becoming more visible, mostly in the northern parts of the country where American troops are backing Kurdish-led forces fighting ISIS.

Asked if the airstrike increases the US role in the Syrian war, Mattis said America will defend its troops in case of “aggressive” steps against them.

The Syrian military official said attempts to justify the attack by claiming the toops did not respond to a warning not to advance are “categorically rejected.”

The official said that the aerial “aggression” near the border with Jordan killed several soldiers and caused material damage.

The strike was the first such close confrontation between US forces and fighters backing President Bashar Assad and the development is likely to increase tensions in the war-torn country.

The unnamed official’s comments were carried by Syrian state TV a day after the strike.

This “flagrant aggression launched by the International coalition exposes the falsity of its allegation about fighting terrorism and undoubtedly demonstrates the reality of the Zionist-American project in the region,” the Syrian official said.

In Geneva meanwhile, Bashar al-Ja’afari, the head of the Syrian delegation to the peace talks underway in the Swiss city, told reports there that he discussed the airstrike during a meeting Friday with the UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, describing the attack as “state terrorism.”

“In every meeting we remind the attendees that there is terrorism by terrorists and also terrorism by states committed against our country,” al-Ja’afari said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Friday that a US military strike the previous day against militia supported by the Syrian government was an unacceptable violation of Syria’s sovereignty, Russian news agencies reported.

Gatilov, who was speaking in Geneva, was cited as saying that the US strike would hamper efforts to find a political solution to the conflict there.

“Any military action leading to an escalation of the situation in Syria has an impact on the political process,” agencies quoted him as saying. “It (Thursday’s strike) is utterly unacceptable and a violation of Syria’s sovereignty.”

US officials told Reuters earlier that the US military carried out the air strike on Thursday against militia supported by the Syrian government that posed a threat to US and US-backed Syrian fighters in the country’s south near the Jordanian border.

A military source on the Syrian government side said on Friday that the air strike had hit “one of our military points”, without elaborating, Syrian state TV reported.

“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 in At-Tanf,” a US defense official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“Then there was finally a strike against the lead portion of that movement.”

The official was “not sure” which forces were in the convoy but they “were clearly working with the Syrian” regime.

The At-Tanf Garrison is used by elite US and British commandos and has come under repeated attacks in the past.

Attempts to stop the convoy included a call to the Russians — who are working with the Syrian regime — then a “show of force” in the skies above the vehicles, followed by warning shots.

The official said the convoy was “significant” in size, but only the lead vehicles were hit.

Describing the hours-long event as an “escalation-of-force situation,” the official said it did not signal a strategic shift for the coalition, which remains focused on fighting the Islamic State group.

America has been militarily involved in Syria since 2014 but has for the most part avoided engaging directly in the country’s civil war.

At-Tanf has been the target of repeated attacks in recent months.

Last month, US-led allied forces and Syrian rebels thwarted a significant IS attack on the base.

And in June last year, Russian warplanes bombed the outpost, reportedly just one day after British Special Forces had pulled out.

The air strike late on Thursday killed several people and caused material damage, the source said, saying that this hampered efforts by the Syrian army and its allies to fight ISIS.

Gatilov complained about what he said was a separate strike that had occurred on Wednesday May 17.

“Literally a day before this (Thursday’s strike) a strike was carried out which resulted in a large number of civilian deaths, which is also unacceptable,” Gatilov was cited as saying.

The United States has not spoken about any strikes carried out by the US-led coalition on that date.

Agencies

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