(CNSNews.com) – For the second time in less than three weeks, the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition on Tuesday bombed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after they entered an area near the Syria-Jordan-Iraq border where the U.S. is training local forces to take on ISIS.
A statement from the Operation Inherent Resolve coalition said the pro-regime forces entered a declared “de-confliction zone” with a tank, artillery, anti-aircraft weapons, armed vehicles and more than 60 personnel, “posing a threat to Coalition and partner forces based at the At Tanf Garrison.”
After issuing several warnings, the coalition had conducted airstrikes against the forces, destroying two artillery pieces and an anti-aircraft weapon, and damaging a tank.
“The coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime or pro-regime forces but remains ready to defend themselves if pro-regime forces refuse to vacate the de-confliction zone,” it said.
“The coalition calls on all parties in southern Syria to focus their efforts on the defeat of ISIS, which is our common enemy and the greatest threat to regional and worldwide peace and security.”
The coalition did not identify the forces it struck, but the regime is supported by Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Hezbollah Shi’ite militias.
The area in which the engagement took place – near Syria’s borders with Jordan and Iraq – is strategic, since Iran is hoping to secure a Shi’ite land corridor through Iraq to its allies in Damascus and Lebanon.
“De-confliction zones” are areas inside Syria where U.S. and Russian forces have agreed not to interfere with each other. Russia is actively supporting Assad in the civil war.
The coalition said the warning to the encroaching pro-regime forces had been issued through the so-called “de-confliction line.” The communication channel between U.S. and Russian military officials is designed to avoiding incidents in Syrian airspace, where Russian warplanes and those of the coalition are flying.
On May 18, coalition forces struck pro-regime forces who had entered the zone and were deemed to pose a threat to U.S. and partner forces in the At Tanf area. On that occasion the coalition said it attacked after first making a show of force and firing warning shots from a coalition aircraft.
Coalition forces are using the small base at At Tanf, about ten miles from where the three countries’ territory meets, to train vetted Syrian rebels to fight against ISIS.
The Assad regime contests that. After coalition aircraft at the end of May dropped leaflets in the area warning pro-regime militias to avoid the zone, the SANA state news agency said the Syrian army and its allies know that the U.S. “is setting up a camp for training terrorist militias under the pretext of fighting the terrorist organization [ISIS].”
Early on Wednesday the Al-Masdar Arabic web portal quoted a military source in Damascus as saying the Syrian military will not stop its offensive in the area until it is “clear of all terrorists.”
There was no immediate response from the Russian government, although on May 30, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained that the U.S. presence and use of force in the At Tanf area was “very alarming, as it directly affects the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic.”
Reaction to the latest incident did come from a senior Russian lawmaker, who told Itar-TASS that “terrorists” fighting in Syria may be lulled into thinking they are on the same side as the U.S.-led coalition.
“Eventually, such actions by the United States undermine the process of political settlement, because they give the terrorists grounds to think that they are not alone in fighting the government forces, that a great power like the United States is also on their side,” said Sen. Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the Federation Council’s Defense and Security Committee – the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Ozerov contested the coalition’s claim that the presence of the pro-regime forces posed a threat.
“During the five years [sic] of the U.S. presence in Syria, I have never heard of any accidental strike, delivered by the pro-government forces against the Americans in Syria,” he said.
Operation Inherent Resolve reported 35 strikes against ISIS targets in Syria and five against ISIS targets in Iraq on Tuesday.