Josie Ensor — Telegraph.co.uk May 18, 2017
American jets were understood to have struck a convoy of 27 tanks as they moved to within 15 miles of a coalition garrison in al-Tanf, a border crossing point to Iraq in southern Syria, marking the most direct clash between coalition forces and fighters with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Syrian, Iranian and allied Lebanese Hizbollah forces have in recent days moved surface-to-air missiles closer to the eastern frontline with the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) units, in an apparent warning to the US-led coalition, which flies sorties against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) in the area.
“A convoy going down the road didn’t respond to numerous ways for it to be warned off from getting too close to coalition forces in al-Tanf,” a US official confirmed.
US aircraft then attempted to buzz the regime, but when the convoy did not turn around, they conducted a strike against some of the vehicles.
“Then there was finally a strike against the lead portion of that movement.”
Mozahem al-Saloum, spokesman for the FSA’s Maghawir al-Thawra brigade at the base, told The Telegraph that the fighters are trained to only fight Isil but were forced to “defensively” engage with the pro-regime fighters.
“The regime and Iranians were not supposed to approach, yet today, the regime decided that they want to take over the al-Tanf border line and a main crossing point there, that’s when the SAA (Syrian Arab Army) and Iranians clashed [with] our troops.”
He said the FSA brigade notified the US that they were being attacked “and the coalition made its move and targeted the Damascus-Baghdad road.”
There were believed to be several casualties. The area is strategically important for the government and its regional proxies. Capturing the road all the way to the Tanf base would re-establish the regime’s link with its allies in Iraq.
The Damascus-Baghdad highway was a major weapons supply route for Iranian weapons into Syria until Isil seized large areas of territory along the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Tanf is also a crucial hub for the US and UK special forces, which are training opposition fighters in anticipation of an eventual attack on the Isil-held city of Deir Ezzor.
Last month, US special forces helped repel an Islamic State assault on the al-Tanf base in southern Syria where Americans train local forces to help fight the terrorists.
Three US- backed Syrian fighters were killed in the assault launched by Isil against the base. Air Force Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command described the attack as a “complex and coordinated” effort to take the base from the coalition.
The US also bombed Assad forces near Deir Ezzor last September, reportedly killing more than 80 soldiers.
Washington said that the intended target was Isil militants, however, and that the attack on Syrian soldiers was due to a mis-identification of ground forces while the Syrian and Russian governments claimed that it was an intentional attack against Syrian troops.
The attack triggered “a diplomatic firestorm” with Russia calling an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting.