U.S. targets ISIS in Syria strike, Damascus claims its forces hit

The Syrian SANA state media said that the regime’s forces were struck by “several missiles” in the area south of Sukhna, a town on the road from Palmyra to Deir ez-Zor.

A Syrian man cycles past a Christmas tree being decorated in the Christian-majority neighbourhood of Hamidiyeh in the old city of Homs (photo credit: YOUSSEF KARWASHAN / AFP)
A Syrian man cycles past a Christmas tree being decorated in the Christian-majority neighbourhood of Hamidiyeh in the old city of Homs
(photo credit: YOUSSEF KARWASHAN / AFP)
The US-led Coalition targeted an Islamic State commander in Syria’s Badiyah Desert on Sunday. The Coalition said it struck Abu al-Umarayn, who was involved in the murder of US aid worker Peter Kassig in 2014. However, Syrian state media claimed that the US also hit positions of Syrian regime forces near a row of hills in southern Syria. The conflicting accounts illustrate the complex conflict still being waged in Syria against ISIS.
On Sunday evening, Syrian state media SANA claimed that several missiles hit facilities of the Syrian Arab Army, the regime’s main armed forces, south of Sukna on a mountain called Jabal al-Ghurab in Homs Governorate. The Syrian report was picked up by Russian media and other sources that repeated the assertion. Damascus pointed fingers at US forces in Tanf, a Coalition base in southern Syria near the Iraqi-Jordanian border.
The US is adamant that the Syrian regime’s claims are “totally false,” according to the Coalition. “Coalition forces conducted precision strikes against a senior ISIS member,” a statement read. The strike also targeted several other ISIS members. “Al-Umarayn had given indications of posing an imminent threat to Coalition Forces and he was involved in the killing of American Citizen and former US Army Ranger, Peter Kassig.” The Coalition said that the ISIS member was linked to and directly involved with executing several prisoners.
The air strike comes in the context of the capture of two other high profile ISIS members. Osama al-Awaid, who had been in charge of security in ISIS’s Raqqa capital, was captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces in battles near Hajin in the Euphrates Valley in eastern Syria last week. Jamal al-Mashadani, a senior ISIS commander infamous for parading Kurdish Peshmerga captives in cages near Kirkuk in 2015, was also captured by Iraqi security forces in Baghdad recently. The Coalition and its SDF partners are waging a major battle for Hajin, the last ISIS stronghold in Syria. Hajin is 100 km. east of Jabal al-Ghurab which means the Coalition air strike against Umarayn was deep inside Syrian regime-controlled areas.
The air strike against a senior ISIS figure in a Syrian regime area is unusual. The Coalition often conducts air strikes daily near the Euphrates Valley in its area of operations. The last time the US carried out a major air strike in Syrian regime areas was in September 2017 when it struck a convoy of ISIS fighters heading from the Lebanese border toward Iraq in the Syrian desert. Any airstrikes in Syrian regime areas would potentially run into Syrian air defenses. A recent report from the Institute for the Study of War indicated that Russia had increased its air defenses in Syria, and that Russia is using electronic warfare against the Coalition. Yet the Coalition appears to have faced no opposition on Sunday.
Initial reports by social media activists who follow conflict in Syria claimed that the air strikes on Sunday targeted Syrian army positions. The Within Syria blog (@WithinSyriaBlog) tweeted that “the US launched the rockets at static positions of the SAA 21 Brigade. The army was not conducting any unusual tasks.” Other speculated that the US had used rocket artillery, called HIMARS, to target a “convoy belonging to the 3rd Division” of the Syrian regime’s army. The US has warned the Syrian regime not to enter a 55 km. de-confliction zone around the Tanf garrison. In June 2017 the Coalition carried out an air strike targeting Syrian pro-regime forces heading for the garrison. “The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime or pro-regime forces,” a statement noted, claiming that warning shots had been fired to keep the Syrians away. A US Defense Department inspector general report in September noted that Iranian-backed militias outside the de-confliction zone had been acting provocatively and that there was “a potential flashpoint for violence with US troops.”
Tensions have increased at Tanf. The Syrian regime and its supporters often accuse the US of allowing ISIS to operate near Tanf and in recent months the regime has alleged the US carried out air strikes in May, June and September. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov slammed the US for its “illegal” activities in eastern Syria.
The conflicting reports leave only three possibilities. Either there were two incidents, one targeting the ISIS commander and another targeting Syrian forces, or the US or Syrian regime is being misleading in its statement. The US emphasizes that its air strikes were precision strikes. So why would the Syrian regime seek to claim the strikes hit its own forces? It is embarrassing for the regime that US forces hunted an ISIS member who was traveling within Syrian regime areas. They prefer to keep the focus on the US operations in Tanf. This comes in the context of Syria’s Russian ally condemning the US. It also shows that as the battle against ISIS nears its conclusion in eastern Syria, the potential for escalation between the US and the Syrian regime or its Russian and Iranian allies, increases.