U.S. launches rare strike against pro-As­sad forces

Air at­tack in Syria came as con­voy moved to­ward Amer­i­can gar­ri­son

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY MISSY RYAN missy.ryan@washpost.com Louisa Loveluck and Suzan Haida­mous in Beirut and Ka­reem Fahim in Is­tan­bul con­tributed to this re­port.

Amer­i­can air­craft struck a con­voy of troops loyal to Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad on Thurs­day, in a rare di­rect as­sault by the United States on forces af­fil­i­ated with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment.

As­sad’s gov­ern­ment had no im­me­di­ate re­sponse to the in­ci­dent, which oc­curred in far south­ern Syria near an area where Amer­i­can Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces are work­ing with lo­cal fighters.

A de­fense of­fi­cial, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss de­tails of an over­seas op­er­a­tion, said that U.S. air­craft struck a con­voy of sev­eral dozen ve­hi­cles, in­clud­ing a small num­ber of tanks, that were ad­vanc­ing to­ward a U.S.-oc­cu­pied gar­ri­son in Tanf, along the Syria-Iraq bor­der.

“This ac­tion was taken af­ter ap­par­ent Rus­sian at­tempts to dis­suade Syr­ian pro-regime move­ment south to­wards [Tanf] were un­suc­cess­ful,” a Pen­tagon state­ment said.

U.S. of­fi­cials said the ve­hi­cles were slowly ad­vanc­ing within a 30-mile ground and air ex­clu­sion zone that the United States has es­tab­lished around Tanf.

Be­fore the at­tack, the air­craft con­ducted a show of force by fly­ing by the con­voy and fired warn­ing shots, the of­fi­cial said. The Syr­ian fighters “did not choose to turn away,” the of­fi­cial said.

The strike de­stroyed four to five ve­hi­cles, in­clud­ing sev­eral con­struc­tion ve­hi­cles and at least one tank, and ap­peared to have killed those in­side, the of­fi­cial said. U.S. of­fi­cials said they were un­sure whether the forces in the con­voy were Syr­ian army troops or mem­bers of mili­tia groups who fight on the gov­ern­ment’s be­half.

Salim Zahran, an an­a­lyst close to the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, said that U.S. planes tar­geted a Syr­ian army bat­tal­ion in the Shahma area, 40 miles from the Tanf bor­der area. He said the strike, which de­stroyed tanks and four-wheeldrive ve­hi­cles, killed eight sol­diers from the 13th Bat­tal­ion.

Zahran sug­gested re­ports that for­eign mili­ti­a­men were among the dead were in­cor­rect.

The at­tack takes place as pro­gov­ern­ment forces ad­vance on U.S.-backed rebels in south­ern Syria in an ap­par­ent at­tempt to pre­vent them from ex­pand­ing their foothold there.

It un­der­scores the risks the United States faces as it con­tin­ues its cam­paign against the Is­lamic State in Syria, where the gov­ern­ment has been bol­stered by Rus­sian and Ira­nian com­bat power.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has em­braced es­ca­la­tion of U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion in Syria, as it did in April when it launched mis­sile strikes on a Syr­ian air base in re­sponse to a chem­i­cal at­tack on civil­ians.

While the Pen­tagon hopes that al­lied Syr­ian forces will launch an op­er­a­tion against the city of Raqqa, the Is­lamic State’s de facto cap­i­tal, in com­ing weeks, Thurs­day’s at­tack, and the April air base as­sault, mark rare de­vi­a­tions from U.S. ef­forts to avoid plung­ing di­rectly into the civil war that has con­sumed Syria since 2011.

Asked about the Tanf episode Thurs­day, De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis said the strike would not draw the United States fur­ther into the war.

“We are not in­creas­ing our role in the Syr­ian civil war, but we will de­fend our troops,” he said dur­ing a visit of Swe­den’s de­fense min­is­ter to 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. of­fi­cials said they had used a com­mu­ni­ca­tions chan­nel that seeks to avoid in-air mishaps be­tween U.S. and Rus­sian air­craft to ask Rus­sia, one of As­sad’s chief back­ers, to no­tify the mem­bers of the con­voy to re­treat. But they said it was un­clear whether that mes­sage had been de­liv­ered.

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