Syria calls rare US strike an effort ‘to support terrorism’

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Syrian state-run media has said a rare US strike on government-backed troops in eastern Syria killed and wounded dozens of tribal fighters, calling it a new effort “to support terrorism”.

The US-led coalition said its action was in “self-defence”, citing a major attack on its allied forces and US advisers in Deir el-Zour province by at least 500 fighters, battle tanks, howitzers and mortars.

The overnight attack, which a US military official earlier said killed about 100 of the attackers, added another layer to the Syrian conflict that is once again plunging into a new and unpredictable spiral of violence.

The attack in Deir el-Zour province in north-eastern Syria occurred in crowded battle space.

Syrian Civil Defence workers search for survivors after air strikes hit a rebel-held suburb  (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)
Syrian Civil Defence workers search for survivors after air strikes hit a rebel-held suburb (Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets via AP)

A stronghold of Islamic State militants until late last year, the province was also the group’s main source of oil revenue.

US-backed Kurdish-led forces have been fighting for control of Deir el-Zour with rival Russian-backed Syrian troops that are reinforced by Iranian-supported militias.

The US-backed forces control areas east of the Euphrates River and most of the oil and gas fields, while government forces are based in the west.

Previous friction was reported before, but Wednesday’s incident appeared to be the largest since last year.

The IS militants have been dispersed in the province, which also has a number of US bases.

Colonel Thomas F Veale said the coalition reported to the Russians the build-up of the pro-government forces in the area before the attack, and communicated with them during and after it.

The Russian officials offered assurances that they would not engage the coalition forces in the area, Col Veale said.

“Pro-regime forces initiated hostilities with artillery pieces (howitzers). Additionally, Syrian pro-regime forces manoeuvred 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 eight kilometres (five miles) east of the Euphrates River de-confliction line in Khusham, Syria,” Col Veale said.

By crossing the river, the pro-government forces would have violated the existing de-confliction agreement between Washington and Moscow, approaching US-backed forces based near an oil field in the area.

Russia is the main ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Asked if Russia was responsible for not stopping the attack, Col Veale said: “The de-confliction effort has served its purpose. Just as the coalition does not direct the operations of the SDF, the Russians do not direct operations of the Syrian regime.”

Col Veale said they suspect the Syrian pro-government forces were trying to seize terrain from the US-backed forces liberated from IS militants last year, including major oil fields in the area.

The Russian defence ministry said the US air strike wounded 25 pro-Syrian volunteers.

It alleged that the incident showed that Washington was not interested in fighting Islamic militants but wanted “to seize and hold Syrian economic assets”.

Syria’s state media said the coalition bombed government-backed troops in Khusham, describing them as tribal fighters. The media cited reports of dozens killed and wounded.

The official state news agency SANA said the local fighters were battling IS militants and the US-backed SDF in the area.

SANA labelled it an “aggression” and a “new massacre”.

The head of the SDF unit in the area, Ahmed Abu Khawla, said the attackers were government-backed local militias known as the National Defence Forces.

He said they started the attack near oil fields on the east side of the Euphrates.

“It was a little bit stronger than the usual clashes in the area. Everyone is back to their bases,” said Abu Khawla, the head of the Deir el-Zour Military Council. “It is now normal.”

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