WASHINGTON – The U.S. carried out airstrikes against forces aligned with President Bashar al-Assad in southern Syria Thursday as a protection measure for nearby U.S. and partnered forces, according to the U.S. command overseeing the counter-ISIS fight.
The airstrikes, northwest of the southern town of At Tanf, marked the second time the U.S. has targeted Syrian government-aligned forces, but the first time the U.S. has bombed them to protect U.S. and U.S.-backed forces.
The U.S.-led coalition said the pro-regime forces “were advancing well inside an established de-confliction zone” and posed a threat to U.S. and rebel partner forces in At Tanf. It’s unclear if the forces were Syrian government forces or aligned militias.
“This action was taken after apparent Russian attempts to dissuade Syrian pro-regime movement south towards At Tanf were unsuccessful, a coalition aircraft show of force and the firing of warning shots,” Operation Inherent Resolve said in a statement. “Coalition forces have been operating in the At Tanf area for many months training and advising vetted partnered forces engaged in the fight against ISIS. The agreed upon deconfliction zone agreement remains in effect.”
The U.S. does not communicate with the Syrian government, and likely relied on a communications channel with Russia to relay the message to Syria, with whom Russia is partnered in the Syrian civil war.
U.S. officials have not said publicly what damage was done by the strikes. Speaking to CNN on the condition of anonymity, a U.S. defense official said the strikes had hit a vehicle convoy — including a tank and bulldozer, or another front loader-type vehicle — after it continued toward a base where U.S. forces were located despite warnings.
Unidentified U.S. defense officials told CBS that the Syrian government has violated the de-confliction zone two times in the past few days. CBS reports:
In one incident, 27 regime vehicles drove within 18 miles of al-Tanf, which breached the 34 mile radius of the army convoy. U.S. aircraft attempted to buzz the regime, but when the convoy didn’t turn around, they conducted a strike against some of the vehicles.
In the second incident, an unarmed Syrian SU-22 fighter-bomber entered the deconfliction zone and was intercepted by a pair of F-22 fighter aircraft.
Defense Secretary James Mattis said Thursday that the strikes do not represent a change in U.S. policy, but that U.S. troops may act to defend themselves and partnered forces when necessary.
“We’re not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops, and that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops, and so we’ll defend ourselves,” Mattis said prior to a meeting with the Swedish defense minister.
The U.S. military does not take a side in the conflict, and the U.S. government has taken the position that the fate of Assad is one for the Syrian people to decide.
The incident comes over a month after the U.S. bombed a Syrian airbase in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack against Syrian civilians, including children, two days prior. The U.S. said the strike was meant to dissuade the Syrian government from using chemical weapons again.
The latest strikes are likely to reignite debate about the U.S. military actions in Syria, where troops are fighting ISIS under the legal authority of the 2001 authorization that has been interpreted to allow war against al-Qaeda and its associated forces.
“The Trump Administration does not have congressional authorization to carry out military strikes against the Assad regime,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said in a statement Thursday.
“Furthermore, the situation that led to today’s strike is precisely why I warned against getting further entangled in the Syrian civil war without a clear strategy. President Trump needs to explain his plan for Syria to Congress and the American people.”