Latest Clash Between US Coalition And Pro-Regime Forces Points To New Risks In Syria

Will Racke | Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter

U.S. coalition forces in Syria launched a massive counterattack in response to an assault by pro-regime militia on Wednesday, in an impressive display of firepower that also shows how precarious the American position has become.

The retaliatory strike came after fighters loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad assaulted a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) headquarters located in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, where American troops are embedded in an “advise, assist, and accompany” capacity, officials said.

The U.S.-led coalition responded with a barrage of artillery and air strikes, hitting the pro-regime fighters with gunships, fighter jets and Marine Corps artillery, reports Fox News. An estimated 100 pro-Assad fighters were killed over a three-hour bombardment, while the U.S. coalition sustained just one casualty, an injured SDF fighter.

It was a lopsided tactical victory, but one that illustrated the increasing danger of U.S. and Syrian forces coming into direct conflict as the war against the Islamic State in Syria winds down. U.S. warplanes have shot down Syrian aircraft involved in attacks on coalition forces on previous occasions. But Wednesday’s clash was easily the largest between the U.S. military and the pro-Syrian regime alliance since 2015, when U.S troops began deploying to Syria to support Kurdish and Arab militia fighting ISIS.

U.S. military commanders insist the continued presence of American forces in Syria supports a narrowly defined campaign to defeat the remnants of ISIS. Last month, however, the Trump administration laid out an ambitious plan for a post-ISIS Syria that requires a long-term military presence to transition away from Assad’s rule and counter Iranian influence in the country. (RELATED: Trump’s Plan For Syria Is Probably Illegal And Just About Nobody Cares)

Until Wednesday, U.S. coalition and Syrian regime forces had avoided major conflict thanks to a “deconfliction line” negotiated by Washington and Moscow last year. The agreement established the Euphrates River as a barrier between the two alliances, with Russian-backed, pro-Assad forces keeping to the west of the line, while the U.S.-backed SDF operates to the east.

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Now, the uneasy peace is in danger of breaking down. Assad has repeatedly demanded Washington withdraw American troops from Syria, going so far as to threaten to push them out with military force. The U.S. coalition, on the other hand, refuses to cede territory it has retaken from ISIS in eastern Syria.

It is not clear if regular Syrian army troops were involved in the attack against the SDF base, which occurred about five miles east of the deconfliction line. U.S. military officials speculated the attacking force was composed of foreign Shiite militias drawn from nearby countries and trained by Iran to support the Syrian army.

The situation is further complicated by the presence of Russian troops and warplanes in close proximity to American troops. Communication channels between Russian and American forces remained open throughout Wednesday’s battle, reports the Washington Post, citing a pentagon spokesman. Russia was informed of the counter-strike in advance, the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is dealing with a Turkish offensive against Kurdish militia in Syria’s northern provinces. Like Assad, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan views the presence of a well-armed U.S.-backed Kurdish force inside Syria as a grave national security threat, and he has vowed to purge the Turkish-Syrian border region of all Kurdish militia.

The U.S. commitment to its SDF partners is now being tested on two fronts, with Turkey’s offensive coming down the north, and pro-Assad fihters moving in from the west. Aaron David Miller, a Mideast scholar at the Wilson Center who served in the State Department under Republican and Democratic administrations, says the U.S. plan for Syria risks devolving into a quagmire.

“We’re now protecting a territory the size of Indiana and deepening our commitment to the SDF, with no sense of where this is going, no sense of strategy, no sense of endgame,” he told the New York Times.

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