- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
American aircraft bombed a military convoy flying Syrian flags in the country’s southeast on Friday, marking the first time the U.S. military has targeted regime forces in Syria’s six-year civil war, according to U.S. Defense officials.
The U.S. strikes came after the military convoy came too close to a U.S commando base and failed to respond to multiple warnings, according the officials.
The strike showed American commanders are willing to use force to maintain de facto safe zones in the country’s east, where U.S. forces are training local militias to battle the Islamic State and provide security in liberated regions.
U.S. forces spotted a convoy of vehicles, bulldozers and tanks moving toward the garrison at al-Tanf near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders early Friday, and watched as the group stopped within 20 miles of the outpost and began digging defensive positions.
The Americans first alerted their Russian colleagues using a special hotline the two sides set up to ensure their aircraft don’t operate in the same airspace. The Russians were unsuccessful in reaching the regime or convincing the group to turn around, after which U.S. aircraft buzzed the encampment to warn the forces off, according to the officials.
Warning shots were then fired, followed by airstrikes that destroyed the ground positions, along with one tank and several vehicles. Officials would not comment on any casualties.
The strikes were taken on the order of American military commanders in the region under the authorities granted by the Trump administration allowing the military greater leeway to strike targets they deem necessary.
The U.S. forces on the ground were in no danger, but the strikes were deemed to be in self defense because the Syrian regime forces were within about 20 miles of the U.S. position, one military official said.
In a separate incident, a Syrian SU-22 fighter entered the deconfliction zone and was intercepted by a pair of American F-22 fighter aircraft. The Syrian plane quickly left the area that had been agreed to by American and Russian officials as a no-go zone for aircraft from either side.
There have been reports in recent days of Syrian forces and Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters moving south and east from regime strongholds in the direction of al-Tanf, but this was the closest the two sides have come to date. The reports suggest the movement is meant to block the U.S.-backed rebels from moving north toward Deir Ez-Zor, an Islamic State-held area where U.S. commanders expect to take the fight after Raqqa eventually falls.
The strike comes on the heels of another operation in April, when president Trump ordered dozens of Tomahawk missiles launched against a joint Syria/Russian air base near the city of Homs. Russian officials were given prior notice of the strike, which came in retaliation for a brutal chemical weapons attack by Syrian forces that killed over one hundred civilians. No Syrian or Russian troops were killed. American officials have said that the strike was not meant to destroy the airfield or kill Syrian soldiers, but as a show of force and to disable some logistical capabilities of the Syrian air force.
In September, however, waves of U.S.-led coalition aircraft carried out a series of air strikes against the Syrian army positions near the Deir ez-Zor airport, killing 62 soldiers and wounding approximately one hundred others in what American commanders said was a case of mistaken identity.
The base at al-Tanf has been the scene of multiple attacks over the past year. In April, Islamic State fighters lunged at the base, and U.S. Special Operations Forces helped repel the assault, which included a suicide car bomb attack. After the initial assault was pushed back, coalition jets destroyed the remaining ISIS fighters.
Last June, Russian aircraft also struck the base twice within several hours, the second time after being warned by the U.S. that it was a base used by coalition forces. The strikes narrowly missed a team of British special forces soldiers who had left the base just hours before. U.S. officials said four rebels were killed in the strikes.
Photo Credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images