The US-led coalition against ISIS waged a series of airstrikes against a military convoy of loyalists to the Syrian regime, CNN has confirmed.
This marks only the second time in the history of the six-year conflict that American warplanes have intentionally targeted Iranian proxies in Syria. The convoy appears to have consisted not of regular Syrian army soldiers but of international Shia militiamen.
According to a US defense official, a convoy of 20 pro-regime vehicles was headed toward al-Tanf, a military base on the Syrian-Jordanian border, on Wednesday night.
Al-Tanf, which Russian warplanes bombed a year ago in two successive airstrikes, is occupied by US and British Special Forces that are advising an anti-ISIS Syrian rebel group known as Maghawir al-Thawra, or the Commandos of the Revolution.
Thirteen of the vehicles apparently breached the “de-confliction zone” around the base, an area that the coalition has communicated to Moscow to stay well clear of.
US warplanes were first scrambled in a “show of force” against the oncoming convoy. But then five vehicles kept approaching, coming within 29 kilometers of the base when they were finally hit by US aircraft.
The coalition confirmed that the convoy posed a direct threat to “US partner forces” – “despite Russian attempts to dissuade pro-regime movement” toward the base.
The strike marks the first time that the Pentagon has offered aerial protection to its Arab proxies under assault from pro-Syrian militias.
The timing of this American escalation is noteworthy for several reasons.
First, it comes just weeks after US warships in the Mediterranean fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Assad’s Shayrat airbase, which Western intelligence agencies allege was used to launch a deadly chemical weapons attack in northern Syria. That intervention was the first time the US directly attacked the Syrian government.
Second, the al-Tanf skirmish comes just hours after President Donald Trump is scheduled to depart Washington for a tour of the Middle East, his first overseas trip since assuming office. He will travel to Jerusalem and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where he is expected to reassure Israel and America’s Sunni Gulf allies that his administration is committed to containing and deterring Iran, now the principal security underwriter of the Assad regime in Syria.
Third, the US Treasury Department on Wednesday sanctioned two senior Iranian officials, one of whom, the department said in a press statement, “facilitated the sale of explosives and provided other support to Syria.” The other was “the director of the organization responsible for Iran’s solid-fueled ballistic missile program.”
Fourth, the US airstrikes follow on a State Department briefing about the presence of a crematorium for incinerating corpses of political prisoners at the notorious Sednaya jail in Damascus. Allegations about such a facility, reminiscent of the Third Reich’s Final Solution, have circulated in international media for months, yet the US government only just confirmed them this week.
Iran is thought to have expansionist ambitions, and these ambitions have begun to chafe under a slowly increasing US hard power deployment in the region, opposition sources have told CNN.
Tlass Salameh, the commander of the Lions of the East Brigade, said that his men are located 20 kilometers from al-Tanf. The Lions of the East receive support from a covert CIA program designed to train and arm vetted Syrian rebel groups, according to Salameh.
Recruits of that program are allowed to fight the Syrian regime and its allied militias, including those imported from Lebanon and Iraq and beholden to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force.
On Monday, Iran’s state-run Fars News Agency claimed that Lebanese Hezbollah, a prominent IRGC-QC proxy, had deployed “12 regiments with 1,000 fighters” to southern Syria “to face the US-backed militants in al-Tanf border crossing.”
“The regime is bombing us in 25 to 30 raids on a daily basis. Russia hit us once or twice,” Salameh told CNN. “We have a post in Mafraq Kabid on the Damascus-Baghdad highway, which is now controlled by the Iranian and [Lebanese] Hezbollah militias.”
That transnational highway is crucial to Iranian plans to construct a ground corridor, or land bridge, from Tehran all the way to Mediterranean coast.
Rebel sources confirm a report published this week by Britain’s Guardian newspaper to that effect, noting that the original route for this corridor has recently shifted from northern Syria, running through the heartland of Syrian Kurdish territory, to Sunni Arab tribal south of the country. The outlet suggested that the change of latitude owed to a growing presence of US troops and US-run military installations the north, used by various anti-ISIS forces.