U.S. strikes in Syria kill 100, official says

U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis dismisses concerns that the United States is being dragged into a broader conflict in Syria, after a major clash with pro-Syrian government forces overnight that may have left 100 or more of them dead.

Defence secretary dismisses fears of wider war after major clash with pro-government forces

Syrian troops and pro-government gunmen are seen in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, Syria, Sept. 4, 2017. U.S. forces launched rare airstrikes against pro-government forces in the area this week. (SANA via Associated Press)

U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis dismissed concerns on Thursday that the United States was being dragged into a broader conflict in Syria, after a major clash with pro-Syrian government forces overnight that may have left 100 or more of them dead.

The U.S.-led coalition said it repelled an unprovoked attack near the Euphrates River by hundreds of troops aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who were backed by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.

The incident underscored the potential for further conflict in Syria's oil-rich east, where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias holds swathes of land after its offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Assad, who is supported by Russia and by Shia militias backed by Iran, has said he wants to take back every inch of Syria.

The pro-government forces were "likely seeking to seize oilfields in Khusham" east of the Euphrates in Deir el-Zour province, said a U.S. official on condition of anonymity.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who sits on Senate foreign relations and military oversight committees, said the episode raised serious concerns about the open-ended U.S. military presence in Syria.

"I am gravely concerned that the Trump administration is purposefully stumbling into a broader conflict, without a vote of Congress or clear objectives," Kaine, Hillary Clinton's running mate in 2016, said.

'Perplexing' attack

Mattis described the attack on the U.S.-backed fighters, who were accompanied by U.S. special operations forces, as "perplexing." But he described the retaliatory U.S.-led coalition strikes as defensive and limited in nature.

Asked whether the U.S. military was stumbling into Syria's broader conflict, Mattis said: "No. This is self-defence."

"If we were getting involved in a broader conflict, then it would have had an initiative on our part," Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.

A Syrian soldier speaks on a walkie-talkie as other troops and pro-government gunmen stand next to him in Deir el-Zour, Syria in 2017. U.S. forces have launched rare airstrikes against pro-government forces in the area. (SANA via Associated Press)

No U.S. or U.S.-backed forces died but the U.S. official who spoke anonymously estimated that more than 100 pro-Syrian government forces were killed in the counter-attack.

Syrian state television reported that the coalition had caused "dozens of dead and wounded" by bombing pro-government forces. But a commander in the military alliance supporting Assad disputed the death toll, saying seven members of the pro-government forces were killed and 27 injured.

In a letter to the United Nations, Syria's foreign ministry described the strike as a "war crime" and called for the coalition to be dismantled, Syrian state news agency SANA said. "We demand [that the international community] condemn this massacre and hold the coalition responsible for it."

Growing tensions 

The U.S.-led coalition was set up in 2014 to battle ISIS fighters in both Syria and Iraq, who were largely defeated last year. Some 2,000 U.S. forces remain on the ground in Syria, allied to the Kurdish-led SDF alliance, which holds the largest swathe of territory still outside the control of the government.

The Syrian civil war, now entering its eighth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, while drawing in regional countries and global powers supporting client factions on the ground. 

U.S. forces in Syria have already faced direct threats from Syrian and Iranian-backed forces, leading to the shoot-down of Iranian drones and a Syrian jet last year, as well as to tensions with Russia. But this may have been the largest single assault on a U.S.-accompanied position to date.

Still, these episodes have been sporadic. U.S.-backed SDF and the pro-Syrian forces had largely avoided direct confrontation while both were fighting the common Islamic State enemy. Moscow and Washington maintain contacts in eastern Syria to prevent unexpected confrontation between forces they support.

Pentagon spokesperson Dana White told a news briefing that Washington was not "looking for a conflict with the regime."

Still, the incident underscored growing tensions in Syria amid reports of Syrian chemical weapons use elsewhere in the country.

The U.S. State Department on Thursday deplored the alleged use of chemical weapons and backed a call from the UN to put violence in Syria on pause for a month in order to deliver humanitarian aid and facilitate the evacuation of civilians. Russia said the proposal was a non-starter.

"That's not realistic. We would like to see a ceasefire, the end of war in Syria, but the terrorists, I'm not sure they are in agreement," said Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia of the proposed one-month ceasefire.

Moscow 'would like to see a ceasefire, the end of war in Syria,' Russia's UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said Thursday. 'But the terrorists, I'm not sure they are in agreement.' (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

'Liberated from Daesh'

The U.S.-led coalition said the attack occurred around eight kilometres "east of the Euphrates River de-confliction line in Khusham", a town southeast of the provincial capital, Deir el-Zour.

The coalition had alerted Russian officials about the presence of SDF forces, the U.S. official said.

One SDF fighter was wounded, the official said. Nouri Mahmoud, spokesman for the SDF's most powerful element, the Kurdish YPG militia, described the clash as "skirmishes" and said each side had returned to their former positions.

A wounded Syrian pro-regime fighter is pictured in a hospital in Syria's eastern city of Deir el-Zour on Feb. 8. The Syrian government blasted the airstrikes as a 'war crime.' (AFP/Getty Images)

"We suspect Syrian pro-regime forces were attempting to seize terrain SDF had liberated from Daesh [Islamic State] in September 2017," the U.S. official said.

Russia's Interfax cited the Defence Ministry as saying the incident showed the U.S. goal in Syria was not to battle Islamic State but "the capture and withholding of the economic assets," an apparent reference to the Khusham oil field.

Russia's Defence Ministry said the pro-government militias involved in the incident had been carrying out reconnaissance and their activities had not been previously agreed with Russia.