Mystery surrounds overnight airstrikes on pro-Syrian regime fighters

After Syrian regime blamed US, and US denied the attacks, questions remain over who carried out airstrikes in strategic Euphrates valley that allegedly killed pro-Iranian militia members.

June 18, 2018 11:28
4 minute read.
Mystery surrounds overnight airstrikes on pro-Syrian regime fighters

Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim men from the Iranian-backed group Kataib Hezbollah wave the party's flags as they walk along a street painted in the colours of the Israeli flag during a parade marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Baghdad. (photo credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)

Just after midnight in the first hours of Monday morning air strikes hit Syrian regime targets in the Euphrates valley near the Iraqi border. The strikes hit in the proximity of Syrian military positions near Albu Kamal in a village called Al-Hari. They reportedly killed members of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.

Syrian state media reported almost immediately that the strikes were carried out by the US and pointed to the US-led anti-ISIS coalition as the culprit. Within hours, the claims that the US had struck Syrian regime troops was downgraded a bit to “probably” but headlines in pro-Syrian regime media, including in Iran, claimed the US was targeting Syria.

Major Josh Jacques, A US Central Command spokesman, told Reuters that “no member of the US-led coalition carried out strikes near Albu Kamal.”

The US does not usually deny involvement in air strikes that it has carried out. The clear denial indicates the US was not involved. In the past the US has struck at pro-regime units to support its Syrian Democratic Forces partners who have sometimes been targeted by the Syrian regime and its allies. Later, the press affairs office of the coalition said the US is “aware of reports of a strike near Albu Kamal, Syria, that killed and wounded several Katai’b Hezbollah members. There have been no strikes by US or coalition forces in that area.”

Kata’ib Hezbollah is an Iraqi paramilitary group. Its leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis served alongside the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the 1980s and is close to Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. In January 2017 he told Al Mayadeen TV that Lebanese Hezbollah was active in Iraq and provided evidence for Iran’s deep influence from across Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. Since 2017, Kata’ib Hezbollah has been an official paramilitary force of the Iraqi government under the Popular Mobilization Units.

So who would carry out an air attack on an Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitary group in Syria? There are other air forces that operate in the skies over Syria capable of carrying out air strikes. In April, the Iraqi government carried out air strikes against ISIS pockets in Syria near the border. It coordinated with the Syrian regime and coordinated closely with the coalition, which is in Iraq to support the central government’s anti-ISIS campaign. The Iraqi government wouldn’t knowingly target its own paramilitaries in Syria.

Syrian state media has blamed the US for air strikes before. In April, missiles hit a Syrian base near Homs. Later foreign reports placed responsibility on Israel for that air strike. The full details of the April air strike are not known, but the pattern, in which the regime quickly blamed the US, is similar to what happened Monday morning.

Why would the regime falsely attribute an attack to the US? One reason is because Syrian air defense might not know who was carrying out the attack but would know from which direction the attack came. Planes flying into the Euphrates valley would be assumed to be coalition planes. The regime also wants to blame the US in order to ramp up Russia-US tensions  Iraq-US tensions. It may also and wants to downplay the ability of Israel to strike deep in Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) claims that “sites and points of the Lebanese Hezbollah militias – and other militias loyal to the regime forces of non-Syrian nationalities – were targeted by warplanes, which are still unknown.” SOHR  initially said 40 militia members were killed while Orient News media group says it was around 30. Other sources said 38 foreign fighters were killed in the air strike.

Several Twitter accounts have pointed the finger at Israel. IntaNewsAlerts claims that “reports now surfacing that this attack should actually be attributed to Israel.” Reuters asked about the reported air strikes and an Israeli military spokeswoman said that “we do not comment on foreign reports.”

However the air strike comes a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel would continue to take action against Iran’s attempts to entrench itself in Syria. “We will take and have already taken action against efforts to establish a military presence by Iran and its proxies in Syria.”

The area near Albu Kamal where the air strikes were carried out is a strategic corridor and border crossing from Iraq to Syria. It is an area where Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have operated for more than a year. They have been present to fight ISIS but there are also concerns that Iran is seeking a “land corridor” via Iraq to Syria and that this area would be used as a way to transport militias and weapons. A strike on an Iraqi unit like Kata'ib Hezbollah, which is part of the Iraqi government's paramilitary, could be a message to Baghdad to refrain from letting its militias cross the border.

The presence of Kata’ib Hezbollah in Syria points to the way the network of Iranian-backed Shia militias, including those that are officially part of the government in Iraq, create a network from Beirut to Tehran.

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