Published: Sat, May 20, 2017
World | By Paul Elliott

US says Iranian-directed convoy targeted by US strike in Syria

Said Seif, an official with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army Shahid Ahmed Abdo rebel group, said the US intervention will help the rebels to hold their ground against any future incursions by the army and its Iranian backed militias.

Western intelligence sources told Reuters that USA and British special forces are expanding the Tanf base to oust Islamic State militants from the eastern province of Deir Zor, that straddles Iraq, from the south east of Syria.

A pro-regime convoy that was struck by USA -led warplanes inside Syria this week likely was directed by Iran, Pentagon chief Jim Mattis said Friday.

In the end, USA fighters were forced to engage the Syrian force by launching airstrikes against the convoy.

Coalition forces even reached out to Russian counterparts, via the standing deconfliction channel between the two militaries, in order to halt the Syrian troops advancing into the zone, command officials say.

"And that is a coalition element made up of more than just United States troops, and so we will defend ourselves (if) people take aggressive steps again".

The airstrikes were considered to be carried out in "self-defence" given the militias proximity to a base used by elite USA and coalition forces. It wasn't clear if USA forces were there.

There was no immediate response from the US -led coalition following the reports.

Thursday's air strike did not on its own suggest a shift in the US military's focus in Syria, which has been on battling Islamic State militants. The coalition had so far kept its military operations focused on Islamic State militants and al-Qaida-linked groups.

The American strikes were the first against Assad positions since the Pentagon rained 57 Tomahawk missiles on the Shayrat air base near Homs. It wasn't clear if US forces were there. The backing Syrian Kurdish forces who are also fighting IS to the country's east. United States troops have sent patrols in the area to act as a buffer between Turkish troops and the Kurdish fighters.

In recent days, near the border with Jordan, another set of U.S-backed rebel fighters have been on a collision course with government troops in the area of Tanf.

Syrian officials have said that taking Deir el-Zour, an oil-rich province straddling the border with Iraq, from IS militants is a priority. The area gained attention as the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul escalated in recent weeks.

American officials and Syrian activists said the strike in the desert on Thursday hit the pro-Syrian government forces as they were setting up fighting positions in a protected area near Tanf. They said a tank and a bulldozer were also hit. It said troops launched a counteroffensive under the cover of airstrikes.

The officials weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

A Syrian opposition media group, the Palmyra News Network, said there were casualties from the attack, which destroyed a number of vehicles.

"Again and again we see the desire and confirmation of this desire as for the deployment of oppositionists and some extremists, including from Jabhat al-Nusra, to fight against the legitimate government of Syria", Lavrov said commenting on the USA strike. There was no immediate comment from the pro-government side.

A deadly combination of human error, bad intelligence and an increasingly complicated battlefield led to the mistaken bombing of Syrian government troops by American and coalition aircraft in September.

The reports gave different death tolls for the IS attack on the village of Aqarab al-Safiyeh in central Syria.

Syrian state media and monitoring group say that at least 15 civilians have been killed in an Islamic State offensive on a government-held area in Syria.

The U.S. -backed Syrian Kurdish-rebels are closing in on Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS in Syria.

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