Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed that it was Iranian, not Syrian forces, that were the targets of U.S. airstrikes carried out Thursday in the southern part of the country, along the Iraqi border.
“They were Iranian-directed troops” who attempted to breach a designated deconfliction zone near the southern Syrian town of At Tanf, which is home to U.S. training camp for moderate Syrian militias battling the Islamic State, Mr. Mattis told reporters Friday.
He declined to say whether the troops were either directed by elements of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps or whether they were affiliated with Hezbollah, the terrorist organization sponsored by Tehran.
Iranian paramilitaries fought alongside forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad to retake territory from rebel forces battling to overthrow the regime for the last six years. Earlier this year, with the support of a blistering Russian aerial assault, Iranian and regime forces were able to retake the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, which had been under opposition control for four years.
Tehran’s interference in Syria and its support for the Assad regime has only served to extend the country’s bloody civil war, Mr. Mattis said during a press conference on the ongoing fight against Islamic State, or ISIS or ISIL.
“Iran’s activities have not been helpful … extending a war that should have been done years ago,” the Pentagon chief said.
Coalition officials initially tried to stem the advance of the Iranian convoy with a series of warning shots and U.S. aircraft carrying out a low flyover above the convoy in a show of force. Coalition forces even reached out to Russian counterparts, via the standing deconfliction channel between the two militaries, in order to halt the Iranian force advancing into the zone, command officials say.
In the end, U.S. fighters were forced to engage the Iranian force by launching airstrikes against the convoy. The presence of regime troops so close to the deconfliction zone in At Tanif “posed a threat to U.S. partner forces,” say command officials.
In the wake of the strike, American and coalition commanders are instituting more deconfliction avenues to ensure such incursions do not happen again, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday.
Aside from the existing deconfliction line between ground commanders in Syria, a communications link between the Joint Staff and their counterparts in Moscow at the three-star level and a new deconfliction agreement to be put in place once the Raqqa operation commences, Gen. Dunford said during Friday’s press briefing.
These steps, he added, will ensure “everybody understands what the rules are, and that is how we prevent this,” the four-star general said, referring to the At Tanf airstrikes.
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