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The Journal Gazette

Friday, May 19, 2017 1:00 am

US airstrikes hit pro-Syrian forces

Tribune News Service

BEIRUT – Acting to protect American forces based in the region, U.S. warplanes on Thursday struck forces believed to be loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, officials said, in what was viewed as another sign of escalating U.S. engagement in the civil war ravaging Syria.

The airstrikes mark the first time the U.S. military has deliberately hit pro-government forces in response to a perceived threat against American troops. The number of U.S. forces in Syria has steadily increased in recent months.

The U.S.-led coalition in Syria said in a statement Thursday evening that it had struck “pro-regime forces that were advancing well inside an established de-confliction zone” near the city of Tanf on the Iraq-Syria border.

The border crossing in Tanf is home to a garrison where U.S., British and Norwegian troops have been working for months with a Syrian rebel faction, named the Army of the Revolution's Commandos. It is intended to serve as a launching pad for a wide-scale attack on the eastern desert province of Dair Alzour, which is largely in Islamic State hands.

Pentagon officials have said the U.S. military would defend its forces if they were threatened in Syria by Assad's government.

“We are not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said Thursday at the Pentagon. “And that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops, and so we will defend ourselves (if) people take aggressive steps against us.”

It was unclear whether the advancing forces were Syrian army troops or other pro-government allies, but they were flying Syrian flags, officials said.