The U.S.-led coalition aircraft have struck pro-Syrian government forces that continue to violate a deconfliction zone set up around an army base where special forces are training Syrian militias.
U.S. Central Command spokesman Major Josh Jacques told VOA that pro-Syrian government forces set up a convoy northwest of the al-Tanf base, with Syrian tanks, bulldozers, armored vehicles, artillery vehicles and technical vehicles, and began creating fighting positions for their tanks.
Over the course of several hours, the coalition flew aircraft through the airspace and even fired missiles into the ground as “warning shots” near the pro-Syrian forces, but they continued building their positions, Jacques said.
The coalition also used a deconfliction hotline established between the U.S. and Russia to see if the Russians could get them to leave the area, but several apparent Russian attempts led to no change from the forces, he added.
“After that, we couldn’t do much else,” Jacques told VOA. “They had every opportunity to leave the area.”
According to Jacques, the U.S. hit one of the pro-Syrian government tanks and two of the bulldozers. However, some of the Syrian forces remain in the deconfliction zone, which for months has been established as the area within a 55-kilometer radius from the al-Tanf base.
“We’re calling on them to withdraw from the deconfliction zone,” Jacques told VOA.
The rebels hailed the coalition raids and encouraged further actions against the pro-Syrian government forces and Shiite militias who also are trying to gain control of the strategic border point.
“What happened today demonstrates that they cannot reach our territories,” Al-Baraa Fares, a spokesman for the rebel group Maghaweer Al Thawra, told VOA. “When they tried, we informed the collation airplanes, which destroyed their convoys.”
A U.S. official estimated that “possibly dozens of fighters” convoyed into the restricted area ahead of the air strike.
“The strike was not a change in policy,” but rather an instance of the commander on the ground calling for force protection, according to another official.
Tensions in the area have escalated as Syrian government forces and U.S.-backed Syrian forces fight closer to each other. Both forces have said they are trying to push Islamic State fighters out of the area.
A statement from the coalition Thursday confirmed the deconfliction zone agreement remains in effect.
Maj. Jacques told VOA that Russia had agreed to call the U.S. to deconflict whenever they planned to operate in the area within 55 kilometers from the base. The Russians had used the line less than 24-hours before the Syrians violated the space.
“The line’s been up and running,” he noted.
The U.S. military says it does not communicate with pro-Syrian government forces and only speaks with Russian forces when needed to prevent miscalculations as U.S. and Russian aircraft both conduct bombing missions in Syrian skies.
Anti-Islamic State initiative
The Anti-IS coalition forces have been operating in the al-Tanf area for many months. Their focus has been to train and advise Syrian rebel groups about how best to control key territories on the Syrian southern border with Jordan and Iraq.
The pro-Syrian government forces were 25 kilometers away from al-Tanf base when they were targeted by coalition planes, according to Fares.
Fares said the pro-Syrian government forces tried to receive reinforcement from nearby Shiite militias, but the coalition action was swift.
(Ahed Al Hendi from the VOA Extremism Watch Desk contributed to this report.)