U.S. shoots down drone in bat­tle

Pen­tagon steps up its op­er­a­tions in a Syr­ian bor­der area con­tested by sev­eral na­tions.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Nabih Bu­los and W.J. Hen­ni­gan wil­liam.hen­ni­gan@la­times.com Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Bu­los re­ported from Am­man and Times staff writer Hen­ni­gan from Wash­ing­ton. Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran con­trib­uted to this re­port.

AM­MAN, Jor­dan — An armed drone fired on U.S.backed coali­tion forces on pa­trol Thurs­day out­side a small mil­i­tary gar­ri­son in south­ern Syria where Amer­i­can spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces train Syr­ian rebels.

The drone, be­lieved to be an Ira­nian-made Sha­hed-129, missed the ground forces, and the bomb it­self failed to ex­plode, ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials.

A U.S. F-15 fighter jet, scram­bled from a nearby air­field, shot down the drone — the first time an Amer­i­can fighter de­stroyed an en­emy air­craft in air-to-air com­bat since Fe­bru­ary 2009.

Ear­lier in the day, coali­tion war­planes de­stroyed two trucks mounted with ma­chine guns that were ad­vanc­ing to­ward the Tanf gar­ri­son.

The in­ci­dents are part of a steady es­ca­la­tion of the U.S. mil­i­tary’s role in Syria — one that runs the risk of putting Amer­i­can forces on a col­li­sion course with Iran, a close Syr­ian ally.

The Pen­tagon is not sure Ira­nian mil­i­tary pi­loted the air­craft.

“It was clearly meant as an at­tack,” U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dil­lon, the Bagh­dad­based spokesman for the cam­paign against Is­lamic State, told re­porters at the Pen­tagon via tele­con­fer­ence. “We do not see it as a warn­ing shot.”

The U.S. mil­i­tary has now con­ducted three airstrikes in less than a month against what it says are Syr­ian forces di­rected by the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment and loyal to Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad. The forces have amassed for the last sev­eral weeks just out­side — and have re­peat­edly en­croached in­side — a 35-mile “de-con­flic­tion zone” that rings the base and was ne­go­ti­ated with Syr­ian ally Rus­sia.

In re­cent months, the U.S. has ramped up the num­ber of spe­cial op­er­a­tions ad­vi­sors, weapons and other sup­port for Syr­ian rebels bat­tling to deny Is­lamic State mil­i­tants ac­cess to the Ba­dia, a des­o­late swath of ter­ri­tory in Syria’s south­east that has long been a con­duit for the ji­hadis mov­ing east into Iraq and on to Iran and back. The rebels also want to over­throw Syria’s gov­ern­ment, even though the two sides share a com­mon en­emy in Is­lamic State.

With sup­port from a U.S.led coali­tion, the rebels have snatched hun­dreds of square miles there from Is­lamic State. The desert fight­ing is a pre­lude to cam­paigns for oil-rich Dair Al­zour prov­ince, which is largely in the hands of the ex­trem­ists, as well as the city of Raqqah, the group’s de facto Syr­ian cap­i­tal.

Dozens of shiny new U.S.supplied Toy­ota Land Cruis­ers, equipped with plat­forms that can take a heavy gun, lay on flatbed trucks rum­bling into Tanf, a small base that U.S., Bri­tish and Nor­we­gian spe­cial forces use as a stag­ing ground to train, equip and fight along­side their rebel part­ners. Ad­vanced U.S. weapons, in­clud­ing drones and pro­jec­tiles de­signed for clear­ing mine­fields, have been used in re­cent con­fronta­tions be­tween rebels in Syria’s south and forces loyal to As­sad.

But the cam­paign has spurred As­sad and his al­lies — who in­clude Ira­nian mil­i­tary ad­vi­sors as well as ir­reg­u­lar mil­i­tary forces from Le­banon, Iraq and Afghanistan — to launch their own of­fen­sive in Ba­dia against Is­lamic State and the rebels. In ad­di­tion, Rus­sia has de­ployed war­planes and spe­cial forces to bol­ster As­sad’s bat­tered ground troops.

“All sides, the Amer­i­cans, the Iraqis, the Syr­i­ans, the Ira­ni­ans, are in a race against time to con­sol­i­date their strate­gic po­si­tions be­tween Iraq and Syria,” Fawaz Gerges, a pro­fes­sor of Mid­dle East stud­ies at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics, said in a phone in­ter­view on Tues­day. It was a mat­ter of who will reach the Iraqi-Syr­ian bor­der first, he added.

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing the sit­u­a­tion, Cen­tral Com­bat Me­dia, a news chan­nel af­fil­i­ated with the Le­banese fac­tion Hezbol­lah, last week is­sued a state­ment from “the Syr­ian army and its al­lies” say­ing it had launched the “Great Dawn” op­er­a­tions aimed at “con­trol­ling the east­ern desert of Syria and lib­er­at­ing it from the pres­ence of ” Is­lamic State mil­i­tants. Hezbol­lah is sup­ported by Iran and is al­lied with As­sad.

The U.S., which has fa­vored As­sad step­ping down, has given vary­ing de­grees of sup­port to the rebels over the six-year civil war.

The pro-gov­ern­ment troops ap­proached Tanf on Tues­day with a tank, ar­tillery, an­ti­air­craft weapons, trucks mounted with ma­chine guns, and more than 60 sol­diers, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment by the coali­tion.

The U.S. mil­i­tary said it is­sued “sev­eral warn­ings” be­fore de­stroy­ing two ar­tillery pieces and an an­ti­air­craft weapon and dam­ag­ing a tank.

The U.S. mil­i­tary does not speak with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment. So U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cers at an air com­mand cen­ter in Qatar called their Rus­sian coun­ter­parts on a hot­line set up to en­sure the two coun­tries’ pi­lots do not mis­tak­enly run into — or fire upon — one another in the skies above Syria.

Af­ter warn­ing the Rus­sians of the im­pend­ing strikes, the ground forces con­tin­ued their ac­tiv­ity, the U.S. mil­i­tary said. The coali­tion then car­ried out the airstrike.

The U.S. mil­i­tary launched the first airstrike May 18 against the ground forces. De­fense Sec­re­tary James N. Mat­tis said af­ter­ward that the fighters were be­lieved to be “Ira­nian-di­rected forces.”

Af­ter that strike, the coali­tion dropped leaflets warn­ing pro-gov­ern­ment forces they were within the de-con­flic­tion zone and com­mand­ing Syr­ian forces to “leave this area now.”

But the threat to Tanf may also come from across the bor­der in Iraq, where paramil­i­tary fac­tions backed by Iran, known as the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Units, or Hashd al Shaabi, have be­gun to push Is­lamic State into Syria.

Al­though those mili­tias are in a re­luc­tant al­liance with the coali­tion against Is­lamic State, the U.S. views these fac­tions as lit­tle more than Ira­nian prox­ies.

Hadi Ameri, head of Iraq’s Badr Or­ga­ni­za­tion and a leader in the mili­tias, said in an in­ter­view on Le­banese news broad­caster Al Mayadeen that his forces would clear the Iraqi side of the bor­der with Syria.

“We won’t al­low the Amer­i­cans to con­trol the bor­ders, and we’ve in­formed them of this,” he said, adding that al­though his forces “would chase Daesh wher­ever it is,” they would not en­ter Syr­ian ter­ri­tory with­out co­or­di­na­tion with Da­m­as­cus. “Daesh” is a pe­jo­ra­tive Ara­bic acro­nym for Is­lamic State.

If the mili­tias did cross into Syria, it would strengthen Da­m­as­cus’s bid for the east and, Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies say, give Iran un­prece­dented inf lu­ence in the area by cre­at­ing a land route link­ing Tehran to Beirut.

Such a link would al­low eas­ier trans­fer of weapons and sup­port to Ira­nian prox­ies in Iraq, Syria and Le­banon, Hi­lal Khashan, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut, said in a phone in­ter­view.

Ira­nian of­fi­cials dis­missed those claims, say­ing there was no need for such a ge­o­graphic link.

“Why make this land cor­ri­dor in these risky ar­eas? Are we mad? Amer­i­cans do not un­der­stand the re­al­ity on the ground,” said Hus­sein Sheik­holeslam, a se­nior ad­vi­sor to Ira­nian For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif.

Ham­murabi’s Jus­tice News

SYR­IAN REBELS and U.S. troops guard the Tanf bor­der cross­ing in south Syria last month. Amer­i­cans, Syr­i­ans, Iraqis and Ira­ni­ans are all fight­ing in the area.

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