Airstrikes on Pro-Government Positions in East Syria Kill 12 Foreign Fighters

Airstrikes overnight in eastern Syria killed at least 12 pro-government fighters, all reportedly foreign nationals, a war-monitoring group said Thursday. The Syrian government-run media blamed the strikes on the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, The Washington Post reports.

In Damascus, the SANA news agency said coalition aircraft struck military positions between the towns of Boukamal and Hmeimeh in Deir el-Zour province. It did not report any casualties.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war through a network of activists on the ground, said the fatalities were not Syrian nationals but foreign fighters. It said the coalition was likely behind the strikes. Syria’s government forces have relied on the support from the Lebanese group Hezbollah and other regional militias, organized by Iran to wage war on the rebels and IS militants.

Their reach in Syria has alarmed the Trump administration in Washington and Netanyahu’s government in Tel Aviv, which say that Iran’s expansive networks in the war-torn country threaten Israel. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, days after President Donald Trump revoked America’s participation in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, has threatened Iran with the “strongest sanctions in history” unless Tehran withdraws all its forces from Syria and terminates its support for Hezbollah. Iran has dismissed those threats, saying its forces are in Syria at the invitation of President Bashar Assad’s government.

Syrian state media did not immediately report the strikes. A Syrian source close to the government, meanwhile, said the bombardment struck bases manned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards allied with the Syrian government, Haaretz adds.

“Some of our military sites between Albu Kamal and Hamimia were exposed at dawn today to aggression launched by U.S. coalition jets,” state news agency SANA reported, citing a military source.

The media unit run by Hezbollah, a military ally of Damascus, said the strikes were near T2, an energy installation located near the border with Iraq and about 100 kilometers west of the Euphrates river where the coalition is backing ground forces against Islamic State. The United States, Britain and France bombed government facilities in April in retaliation for a suspected gas attack blamed on Assad’s forces.

According to The Jerusalem Post, a U.S. military official denied any knowledge of the strikes.

“We have no operational reporting of a U.S.-led coalition strike against pro-Syrian regime targets or forces,” Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told Reuters.

Another Pentagon spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “We have no information to substantiate those reports.” The U.S. military operating outside the coalition also maintains a base at Tanf in the eastern Syrian desert near the borders with Iraq and Jordan and last year struck pro-government forces moving along a road towards it.

Eastern Syria was mostly held by Islamic State until last year, when two rival campaigns, one by the Syrian army backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the other by Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the U.S. coalition, took most of its land. Communication between Russia and the United States averted most clashes between them. However, the coalition has struck Syrian pro-government forces that it said were attempting to attack coalition positions.