Deadly air strikes by a US-led coalition on pro-regime forces in eastern Syria were purely an act of self-defense, Pentagon chief Jim Mattis said Thursday, in an apparent effort to tamp down controversy over the incident.
The coalition described its action - which if confirmed could represent the largest number of pro-regime casualties inflicted by the US-led coalition - as carried out in "self defense".
"Syrian pro-regime forces initiated an unprovoked attack against well-established Syrian Democratic Forces headquarters February 7", the statement reads.
Syrian state television reported that the coalition had caused "dozens of dead and wounded" by bombing pro-government forces.
The heavy death toll underscored the large size of the attack, which the US official said included about 500 opposing forces, backed by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.
Mattis described the attack on the US -backed fighters, who were accompanied by USA special operations forces, as "perplexing".
"Along with ground based fire support, these aircraft released multiple precision fire munitions and conducted strafing runs against the aggressor force, stopping their advance and destroying multiple artillery pieces and tanks", Lt. Col. Damien Pickart toldCNN.
Reuters later cited a U.S. official as saying on condition of anonymity that over 100 pro-government forces had been killed in the assault.
The pro-Damascus forces "began shelling it with artillery", he added.
Syrian militias came under fire of the USA -led coalition and its local allies as they had failed to inform the Russian military about their plans to conduct a reconnaissance and search operation, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement Thursday.
Following the incident, the Russian command at the air base of Hmeymim established channels of interaction with representatives of the worldwide coalition headquarters, which stated that the local oil refinery was controlled by the SDF and US military personnel, the statement said. Officials believe they were trying to seize a nearby oil field.
The pro-government forces were "likely seeking to seize oilfields in Khusham" east of the Euphrates in Deir al-Zor province, said a USA official on condition of anonymity.
Syrian Kurdish officials said they reached out to the Assad regime for assistance, to no avail. The Pentagon would not confirm the figure given by the United States official late Wednesday. CENTCOM reports that no Americans were injured as they engaged roughly 500 attacking troops, as well as tanks and artillery.
To complicate matters, two United States defense officials told CNN that the United States military now assesses that Russian contractors, believed to be funded by the Russian government, participated in Wednesday's assault. Aram... this is another rare attack on pro-Syrian fighters.... what else is being said from both sides. That official also said the military assesses that some of the Russian contractors were killed in the USA counterstrike.
Mattis said the USA was still trying Thursday to establish exactly who the attackers were but added that the Russians have said they did not have forces there and "you can't expect somebody to deconflict something they can't control". "Coalition service members in an advise, assist, and accompany capacity were co-located with SDF partners during the attack eight kilometers east of the agreed-upon Euphrates River de-confliction line".
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