American warplanes again targeted Shia militia forces allied to the Syrian government on Tuesday, the second strike on pro-Assad fighters in less than a month.
U.S. officials allege the militia posed a threat to Americans and the rebels they train at a base near the southern Syrian-Iraqi border crossing in al-Tanf, however based on what is known about the militia’s operations, the threat may have been non-existent.
A Syrian military source said the strike caused deaths and material damage, and that it showed the coalition was “in support of terrorism,” likely referring to the fact that the U.S. strikes have stifled Syrian regime plans for an eventual offensive on remaining ISIS-held territory in the country.
A similar strike was carried out on a militia tank convoy in the same area on May 18, killing some 8 militia soldiers and destroying several vehicles. The convoy, like the fighters who were attacked Tuesday, are attempting to link up with other militia fighters in Iraq to secure an important surface supply route along the Damascus-Baghdad highway, an 850 km stretch of road connecting the two capital cities.
The Syrian government hopes to use the road to ship in supplies, as well as a way to more easily maneuver soldiers around the country as it retakes territory from ISIS and other rebel factions.
The purpose of the American presence near al-Tanf is ostensibly to train rebels to fight ISIS, however given the recent strikes it appears the goal is to contain Assad’s militia allies, preventing them from making significant gains in the southeastern part of Syria.
Many of the Shi’ite militias fighting in Iraq and Syria are supported by Iran; the U.S. fears Iran will have a direct route into the heart of Syria if the militias secure the Damascus-Baghdad highway, and possibly into Southern Lebanon, where they could back Hezbollah and threaten Israel.
Syrian soldiers told Syrian state media on Saturday that they would take and reopen the highway.
“Within a few days, you will find us at the Iraqi border, and we will achieve a great and historic victory in the history of this crisis – cleansing the entire Badia, liberating the Tanf road […] and restoring the vital artery between Iraq and Syria,” one soldier said. The Badia is the name of a region in Southeastern Syria.
Western-backed rebels also resumed a rocket barrage on Shia militia outposts along the highway on Tuesday.
Prior American strikes on the Syrian regime include April’s retaliatory Tomahawk strike for a never-proven regime chemical weapons attack, as well as a November 2016 strike on a regime position that killed over 80 Syrian soldiers.
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