(CNSNews.com) – Russia and the Assad regime cried foul on Thursday after the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in Syria carried out airstrikes on pro-regime forces, in response to what the U.S. called an “unprovoked attack” on its allies.
An estimated 100 fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were reportedly killed in the air and artillery strikes in Deir ez-Zor province, which would make it by far the deadliest clash between the U.S. military and pro-regime forces in Syria, which are supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
The Assad regime’s foreign ministry in a letter to the United Nations called the coalition strike “a brutal massacre against Syrian popular forces” and said it amounted to “a war crime and a crime against humanity and a direct support to terrorism.”
For its part, the Russian defense ministry said the incident revealed that the real purpose of the “illegal” U.S. presence is to seize control of Syrian economic assets, not fight ISIS terrorists. (There are gas fields in the vicinity.)
In line with their allegations, Moscow and Damascus both claimed that the U.S.-led coalition had attacked pro-regime militias that were at the time confronting ISIS forces in the area – thus accusing the U.S. of acting to protect the terrorists.
But a coalition statement released through U.S. Central Command said the pro-regime forces had attacked a “well established” headquarters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a U.S.-backed alliance comprising Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen factions.
And it said the base that came under attack is located about five miles east of an agreed-upon deconfliction line. Russian-backed regime forces control territory west of the middle Euphrates valley and the U.S.-supported SDF holds terrain to the east, which it wrested from ISIS’ grip last fall.
Present at the headquarters during the “unprovoked attack” were coalition personnel serving “in an advise, assist, and accompany capacity,” the statement said.
“In defense of coalition and partner forces, the coalition conducted strikes against attacking forces to repel the act of aggression against partners engaged in the global coalition’s defeat-[ISIS] mission.”
The coalition stressed that it remains committed to focusing on the mission to defeat ISIS in the area and “asserts its non-negotiable right to act in self-defense.”
‘Battalion-sized unit formation’
Pentagon press spokesperson Dana White told reporters the evidently “coordinated attack” on the SDF headquarters came after the coalition observed a slow buildup of pro-regime forces over the past week.
She said the attackers, moving “in a battalion-sized unit formation,” used tanks, artillery, mortars and multiple-launch rocket systems, and that 20-30 tank and artillery rounds had landed less than a third of a mile from the headquarters.
In response, SDF forces supported by the U.S.-led coalition struck back with a combination of air and artillery strikes. White said that pro-regime forces and vehicles that turned around and headed back west were not targeted as they retreated.
White said there were no coalition casualties although one SDF soldier had been injured. She could not confirm reports about the number of casualties on the aggressors’ side.
Asked whether the response was felt to be proportionate, White said the Pentagon and Defense Secretary James Mattis were “comfortable with the judgment of our commanders on the ground.”
“We are not looking for a conflict with the regime,” she said. “Any action that takes away from our ongoing operations to defeat ISIS is a distraction.”
The spokeswoman was unable to confirm reports that pro-Iranian forces or Russian contractors were among the attacking group. Russia’s defense ministry said there were no Russian military personnel in the area.
White said the deconfliction communication line with Russia had served its purpose. The coalition had been in contact with the Russians before, during and after the attack, and “Russian officials assured coalition officials they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity.”
Reporters asked whether the fact the attack took place at all raised doubts about the Russians’ level of influence over the pro-regime forces. White insisted the deconfliction line “worked.”
The U.S. has some 2,000 military personnel deployed in Syria, where SDF partner forces have taken the lead, backed by coalition air support, in the campaign to dislodge ISIS jihadists from the country.
Asked about the longer-term strategy in Syria, White said the military goal remains the defeat of ISIS.
“Our position is to provide our diplomats with the strongest positions, so that they can find a political – a diplomatic solution through the Geneva process.”