Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Nabih Bu­los and W.J. Hen­ni­gan wil­liam.hen­ni­gan @la­times.com Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Bu­los re­ported from Beirut and Times staff writer Hen­ni­gan from Wash­ing­ton.

BEIRUT — Act­ing to pro­tect Amer­i­can forces based in the re­gion, U.S. war­planes on Thurs­day struck forces be­lieved to be loyal to Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashad As­sad, of­fi­cials said, in what was viewed as an­other sign of es­ca­lat­ing U.S. en­gage­ment in the civil war rav­aging Syria.

The airstrikes mark the first time the U.S. mil­i­tary has de­lib­er­ately hit pro-gov­ern­ment forces in re­sponse to a per­ceived threat against Amer­i­can troops. The num­ber of U.S. forces in Syria has steadily in­creased in re­cent months.

The U.S.-led coali­tion in Syria said a state­ment Thurs­day evening that it had struck “pro-regime forces that were ad­vanc­ing well in­side an es­tab­lished de-con­flic­tion zone” near the city of Tanf on the IraqSyria bor­der.

The bor­der cross­ing in Tanf is home to a gar­ri­son where U.S., Bri­tish and Nor­we­gian troops have been work­ing for months with a Syr­ian rebel fac­tion, named the Army of the Revo­lu­tion’s Com­man­dos. It is in­tended to serve as a launch­ing pad for a wide-scale at­tack on the eastern desert prov­ince of Dair Al­zour, which is largely in Is­lamic State hands.

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials have said the U.S. mil­i­tary would de­fend its forces if they were threat­ened in Syria by As­sad’s gov­ern­ment.

“We are not in­creas­ing our role in the Syr­ian civil war, but we will de­fend our troops,” De­fense Sec­re­tary James N. Mat­tis said Thurs­day at the Pen­tagon. “And that is a coali­tion el­e­ment made up of more than just U.S. troops, and so we will de­fend our­selves [if] peo­ple take ag­gres­sive steps against us.”

U.S. com­man­ders be­came con­cerned when they saw tanks, bull­doz­ers and other heavy equip­ment ad­vance with­out au­tho­riza­tion into a de-con­flic­tion zone near the base where Amer­i­can forces were lo­cated, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. of­fi­cials, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the mat­ter pub­licly.

The Syr­ian troops had also ig­nored a “show of force” and “warn­ing shots” fired by coali­tion air­craft.

“The agreed-upon de­con­flic­tion zone agree­ment re­mains in ef­fect,” the coali­tion state­ment said.

The U.S. mil­i­tary does not speak with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, so U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders at an air com­mand cen­ter in Qatar called their Rus­sian coun­ter­parts on a spe­cial hot­line set up to en­sure the two coun­tries’ pi­lots will not mis­tak­enly run into one an­other.

Af­ter warn­ing the Rus­sians, the U.S. planes flew near the Syr­ian ground forces and fired a warn­ing shot, the of­fi­cials said. Af­ter the ground forces con­tin­ued their ac­tiv­ity, the planes car­ried out the airstrike, they said.

It was un­clear whether the ad­vanc­ing forces were Syr­ian army troops or other pro-gov­ern­ment al­lies, but they were fly­ing Syr­ian flags and be­gan con­struct­ing berms and fight­ing po­si­tions, of­fi­cials said.

There was no con­fir­ma­tion of the at­tack by Syr­ian gov­ern­ment me­dia.

Moza­hem Sal­loum, spokesman for the Army of the Revo­lu­tion’s Com­man­dos, said in a Face­book post that 17 ve­hi­cles were de­stroyed, in­clud­ing four tanks.

Other ac­tivists said eight peo­ple had been killed and two were wounded.

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