WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.S.-led coalition and its local allies in Syria struck pro-government forces with deadly air and artillery fire overnight to repel “an unprovoked attack” near the Euphrates, the coalition said on Thursday.
The incident underscores 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 Islamic State.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by Russia and by Shi‘ite 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 al-Zor province, said a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity.
The attack was carried out by 500 troops backed by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars but the coalition and its local allies killed more than 100 of them, the official said.
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 pro-government forces were killed and 27 injured.
The U.S.-led coalition had alerted Russian officials about the presence of SDF forces in the area far in advance of the thwarted attack, the U.S. official said.
“Coalition officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted (enemy) attack,” the official said.
The United States and Russia maintain regular contacts in eastern Syria to prevent unexpected confrontation between the forces they support there.
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.