In the latest confrontation between United States forces and those aligned with the Syrian government, the U.S. military claimed Tuesday to have shot down an allegedly armed Iranian-made drone in the war-ravaged country's southeast.
The incident comes on the heels of a U.S. Navy attack on a piloted Syrian Su-22 jet in the Southern Raqqa countryside and indicates an increasingly assertive stance by the U.S., which is yet to spell out a coherent policy in Syria. In recent weeks the U.S. has launched several provocations and open acts of aggression against forces it refers to as “pro-regime,” a reference to forces aligned with the legitimate government of Syria, including Iran-backed militias and the Russian military expedition.
The unmanned aircraft allegedly displayed hostile intent toward U.S.-backed coalition forces, which includes local and foreign Islamist militants, in a part of Syria that was recently identified as a military priority by Damascus.
The U.S.-led coalition said the location where the drone was destroyed was close to where another "pro-regime" drone, which intelligence sources had also identified as an Iranian Shahed 129 UAV, was shot down on June 8 after allegedly dropping bombs near coalition forces.
As the battle against the Islamic State group in Raqqa has raged, the government has sought to secure its eastern border with Iraq, which it hasn't controlled in over three years. Western analysts have expressed worry that control over the border is a strategically important goal for Syria and allied Iran, which seeks to secure a land corridor connecting it to its allies in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.
Last week, Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces who fought their way to the Syrian border expressed their hope to deliver supplies to Syrian government forces in the besieged city of Deir-al-Zor, where Islamic State group holdouts are clinging to one of their last strongholds.
“It’s normal for a country to have control over all its territory,” a senior officer from the operations room of forces allied with the Syrian government told news website Al-Monitor. “The Syrian Army and (its) allies’ control over the Syrian border is logical and legal, and it’s laughable to listen to calls asking an army of a sovereign state to stay away from its borders.”
The U.S. military has repeatedly warned forces fighting on Bashar al-Assad's side to stay away from a "deconfliction zone" agreed upon with Russia, near a garrison used by U.S. special forces and U.S.-backed militia around Tanf, which lies along the Syria-Jordan-Iraq triple border region. In a recent statement, the U.S. military arrogated to itself the right to control the strategic area, placing multiple rocket launcher systems at the base and warning that it would not "tolerate any hostile intent and action of pro-regime forces," a stance raising concerns of further aggression from U.S. forces unlawfully stationed in the Arab country.
“(The U.S. presence) is absolutely illegal,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told journalists Tuesday in Moscow. “There is neither a United Nations Security Council resolution nor a request from Syria’s legitimate authorities to this effect … It’s a principle of international law," the diplomat added, noting that the Russian military expedition in the country is present “at the request of the legitimate authorities.”
The increasing tensions in Syria have highlighted the dangers of the U.S. strategy in Syria, or lack thereof, where committed regional forces and allies aligned with the government have made vast strides toward ending the brutal civil war while the United States has backed the anti-government Syrian Democratic Forces and Free Syria Army, periodically attacking Syrian government forces on the dubious pretext of “self-defense.”
Analysts have seen the U.S. moves as not guided by an overarching strategy but, rather, as impulsive gestures toward controlling Syrian territories abandoned by the Islamic State group while only coordinating its moves with government-aligned forces on an ad hoc basis, raising the risk of grave miscalculations or inadvertently fatal clashes.
The U.S. failure to coordinate with local forces prior to Sunday's downing of a Syrian warplane infuriated Russia, which called the attack “a cynical violation of Syria's sovereignty” as well as “a flagrant violation of international law and an actual military aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.”
The Russian Defense Ministry halted its “deconfliction” cooperation with the U.S. to prevent aerial incidents Monday and began to track airborne vehicles west of the Euphrates river as targets with advanced surface-to-air missile systems.