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Syria Officials Dispute Account by U.S. of Attack -- WSJ

20 May 2017 6:32 am
By Raja Abdulrahim, Noam Raydan and Ben Kesling 

The Syrian regime and its militia allies claimed Friday that their forces were attacked by the U.S.-led coalition while they were fighting Islamic State, an assertion the U.S. dismissed as false.

The coalition on Thursday launched a rare airstrike against pro-regime forces to halt their advance toward U.S.-backed rebels operating along the border with Jordan in southeastern Syria. The elite rebel force based in al-Tanf, Maghaweer al-Thawra, is planning to advance northward to take territory along the Syrian-Iraqi border and divide land under Islamic State control, rebels in the group said.

But rebels said the pro-regime forces were trying to cut the rebels off and insert themselves into the battle against Islamic State, aiming to shore up longstanding claims by the Syrian government that it is leading the fight against terrorism in the six-year-old conflict.

"This is all part of the scramble for eastern Syria that has been sparked by the imminent collapse or defeat of ISIS," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "This is the first time that America has intentionally attacked Syrian forces in a contest for control of Syrian land."

While proving that it is fighting terrorism is part of the regime's calculations in its battlefield movements, Mr. Landis said it is really about control of Syria.

"Syria has to be worried about America setting up a proxy rebel force to control this area," he said.

The Syrian government condemned the U.S. attack and said it was fighting terrorism, adding no one has the right to dictate how the regime should fight "terrorist organizations" such as Islamic State and al Qaeda. Though the regime insists it is fighting terrorism, it has focused most of its airstrikes and artillery attacks on antigovernment rebels over the years.

The regime is supported on the battlefield by an array of Shiite militia fighters from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. An Iraqi Shiite militia allied with the regime, Sayd al-Shuhada, said Friday that one of its fighters was killed and others were injured in the coalition airstrike "while we were chasing the remnants of ISIS from hill to hill and from valley to valley."

In Washington, the Pentagon said Friday that the regime-led troops it targeted Thursday weren't near Islamic State forces and that the U.S. action was required for defensive purposes.

"The advancing pro-regime forces were preparing fighting positions for several T-72 tanks and artillery," said a statement from the U.S.-led coalition Friday. "The completion of these fighting positions within the established de-confliction zone northwest of al-Tanf would pose a threat to coalition and partner forces at al-Tanf."

Asked about reports that the pro-regime troops had been fighting Islamic State, the Pentagon said the assertion was untrue.

"There are no ISIS near al-Tanf," the statement said.

The U.S.-led coalition also said Friday that it didn't target Assad regime forces. Other U.S. officials and observers on the ground have said the airstrike targeted equipment such as tanks operated by regime forces.

"We believe they were pro-regime forces, not Syrian regime forces," the coalition said in a separate statement.

U.S. officials said they had been monitoring the regime and loyalist forces gradually advance toward the base in Tanf over the past week, especially in the wake of a May 9 Syrian airstrike on rebel positions near the Jordanian border and some 20 miles from where the airstrike hit on Thursday. Russia attempted to dissuade the advance of the pro-regime forces, but failed in the effort, according to the Pentagon.

Russian officials also condemned the coalition airstrike and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he wasn't aware of any warnings from the U.S. ahead of time. He said a few dozen civilians died as a result of the strike.

This isn't the first time the regime has tried to insert itself into an existing battle being waged by the myriad anti-Islamic State forces operating inside Syria.

In February, Turkish-backed rebels known as the Euphrates Shield advanced on the Islamic State-held northern city of al-Bab. At the same time, regime forces moved on the city from the south in an apparent attempt to take it first.

Now that the battle against Islamic State has shifted its focus to the city of Raqqa, regime forces are gradually approaching that area.

In a March interview with a Chinese TV channel, of President Bashar al-Assad said capturing the Islamic State's self-declared capital Raqqa was a priority for his government, even as a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led force is advancing toward the city.

"Any foreign troops coming to Syria without our invitation or consultation or permission, they are invaders, whether they are American, Turkish, or any other one," Mr. Assad said.

--Nour Alakraa contributed to this article.

Write to Raja Abdulrahim at raja.abdulrahim@wsj.com and Ben Kesling at benjamin.kesling@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 20, 2017 02:32 ET (06:32 GMT)

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