U.S. STRIKES SYRIAN FORCES
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.