(CNSNews.com) – In a rare move, the U.S.-led coalition on Thursday attacked forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in southern Syria, although Defense Secretary James Mattis said the incident did not mean an increased U.S. role in the Syrian civil war.
Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS jihadists in Syria and Iraq, said the coalition struck the “pro-regime forces” who had entered an established “de-confliction zone” and were posing a threat to U.S. and partner forces in the At Tanf area.
A show of force and the firing of warning shots by a coalition aircraft had taken place ahead of the attack, it said in a statement.
The coalition said Russia also apparently had tried to dissuade the pro-regime forces from moving into the area, to no avail.
“Coalition forces have been operating in the At Tanf area for many months, training and advising vetted partner forces engaged in the fight against ISIS,” it said. “The agreed upon de-confliction zone agreement remains in effect.”
(“De-confliction zones” are areas inside Syria where U.S. and Russian forces have agreed not to interfere with each other.)
The identity of the forces that came under attack was not immediately clear, but Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported movements of thousands of Hezbollah fighters into the area concerned – a desert zone near the point where Syrian, Jordanian and Iraq territory abuts, and not far from the main At Tanf (aka al-Tanf) border crossing, where the strategic Damascus-Baghdad highway crosses from Syrian territory into Iraq.
Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization in Lebanon, is fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, as are other Shi’ite militias and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces. Russia is the regime’s other major ally.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition monitoring group with good contacts inside the country, reported that at least eight “gunmen loyal to the regime” had been killed in the strike, adding that most of them were non-Syrian nationals.
It did not elaborate, but apart from Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranians, Shi’ite militiamen from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are also fighting on behalf of the regime.
The Syrian Observatory also said four vehicles had been destroyed in the airstrike.
Asked during a media availability at the Pentagon whether he was concerned the incident could increase the U.S. role in the conflict, Mattis replied, “We’re not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops.” He noted that coalition elements there comprised more than just U.S. troops.
“We’ll defend ourselves if people take aggressive steps against us, and that's been a going-in policy of ours for a long time,” he added.
ISIS fighters recently withdrew from parts of the area, and it is believed the regime and its allies are trying to prevent U.S.-backed rebels from extending their control there. Early this week it was reported that regime and Shi’ite militia forces were moving into the area.
The Fars news agency, which has links to the IRGC, said the Hezbollah forces were deploying there to thwart “U.S. plots.”
It cited a “well-informed military source” as saying Syrian forces would not allow the U.S. and its allies to create a buffer zone in the southern part of the country, which would become a safe haven for “militants.”
Fars also referred to intelligence reports indicating that U.S., British and Jordanian forces were “preparing for a possible invasion of Syria under the pretext of war on [ISIS] terrorists.”
In recent weeks, the Assad regime accused Jordan – a key member of the anti-ISIS coalition which hosts U.S. forces training Syrian rebels – of plotting with the U.S. to deploy forces inside Syrian territory. Jordan has denied the allegations.
Some of the “invasion” speculation was fueled by war games in Jordan involving troops from the U.S. and some two dozen other nations, including Britain. The annual Eager Lion exercises have taken place for the past seven years.
The swathe of sparsely-populated territory in southern and southeastern Syria is highly strategic: A stronghold for U.S.-backed anti-Assad rebels there could block a potential “Shi’ite crescent” land corridor stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – a prospect that alarms the U.S., Israel and many Sunni Arab states.
Jennifer Cafarella, lead intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War, said the airstrike hit a pro-regime convoy that was likely sent to “disrupt U.S.-backed clearing operations against ISIS in the area [and] test the Trump administration’s resolve.”
As it wages the campaign against ISIS, the U.S. has taken pains during the civil war, now in its seventh year, not to take direct military action against the Assad regime.
Thursday’s incident comes six weeks after President Trump ordered a missile attack on a regime airbase linked to a deadly toxic gas attack in Idlib province.
The U.S. has decades-old unfinished business with Hezbollah, which it holds responsible for the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. With 241 Americans killed, it was the biggest single-day death toll for the Corps since the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II.