- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2018

American airstrikes against pro-government forces in Syria were an unprovoked action by U.S. and coalition forces, designed to fortify Washington’s control over the country’s vast oil assets, Russian defense officials said Thursday.

The U.S. airstrikes against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad Wednesday near the Deir-e-zour region of eastern Syria, which ended with a reported 100 government troops killed, had nothing to do with the ongoing fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), a Russian Ministry of Defense statement claimed.

“The incident once again exposed true American intentions in Syria, which is not the fight against terrorism but seizure and control of economic assets,” Russian officials said, noting the close proximity of the attack to the Al Isba oil fields in deir-e-Zour.

Russia and Iran have been Mr. Assad’s main allies in the country’s seven-year civil war against rebel groups fighting to overthrow the regime.

U.S. commanders say the airstrikes were in response to what appeared to be a coordinated assault on U.S.-backed forces known as the Syrian Democratic Forces who were accompanied by U.S. advisers, based near the oil fields.

“Coalition service members in an advise, assist, and accompany capacity were co-located with [Syrian] partners during the attack eight kilometers east of the agreed-upon Euphrates River de-confliction line,” according to an official coalition statement on the strikes.

“In defense of Coalition and partner forces, the Coalition conducted strikes against attacking forces to repel the act of aggression against partners engaged” in anti-ISIS operations, command officials added.

On Thursday, Russia pushed back on those claims.

Moscow claims a joint team of Syrian troops and pro-government militia were carrying out an attack on “terrorist group which had been sporadically shelling pro-gov positions” near the oil fields in Der-e-zour. During the assault, Syrian forces “came under mortar and multiple artillery rocket system fire, shortly followed by U.S. helicopter strikes,” Russian officials claim.

That said, Syrian forces may have come under fire from U.S. and coalition forces, due to the fact they had failed to inform coalition commanders of their operation ahead of time, Moscow admitted Thursday.

Syria’s state media said the U.S.-led coalition bombed government-backed troops in Khusham, a town in the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province, describing them as tribal fighters. The media cited reports of dozens killed and wounded.

The official state news agency SANA said the local fighters were battling Islamic State militants and the U.S.-backed SDF in the area.

SANA labeled it an “aggression” and a “new massacre.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said Deir el-Zour province continues to witness tensions following the foiled attack and the U.S. response, and said there were reports of new mobilization to the area.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said the Khusham area, near one of the province’s largest oil fields, saw intense clashes with heavy weaponry late Wednesday between pro-government forces and the SDF. The Observatory said the clashes prompted the coalition response with land-to-land missiles and airstrikes. It said at least 45 pro-government fighters, which included Arab and Asian fighers, were killed.

Last summer, the U.S.-led coalition shot down Iranian-made armed drones and aircraft affiliated with the Syrian government in southern Syria, after they came dangerously close to U.S-backed forces and advisers.

The U.S. airstrike coincides with escalating violence in Syria, where Turkey has been carrying out a military offensive to clear a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia from in a northwestern border town, increasing tensions between the U.S. and its NATO ally Turkey.

Meanwhile, Turkish officials said the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran will meet in Istanbul to discuss peace efforts for Syria.

The officials said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to the summit during a telephone call on Thursday. It was not immediately clear when the Istanbul meeting would take place.

The Turkish officials said two leaders also agreed that efforts to create “observation posts” in Syria’s Idlib province as part of a “de-escalation” agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran should gain momentum.

They discussed the humanitarian situation in the Ghouta region just east of Damascus, where dozens have been killed in aerial strikes in the past few days.

The officials provided the information on condition of anonymity in line with government rules.

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This article was based in part on wire service reports. Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.


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