Iran-backed, pro-Syrian regime forces are again massing close to where US-led warplanes bombed them this month, the Pentagon said Tuesday, raising the likelihood of additional strikes.
Coalition planes on May 18 pounded the front of a convoy that had apparently been headed toward the At-Tanf garrison, where coalition commandos have been training and advising local forces fighting the Islamic State group.
That strike occurred inside an established “deconfliction zone” northwest of the garrison, and the Pentagon says it appeared that the forces were trying to build a “fire base” for artillery units.
The deconfliction zones are agreed upon between Russia and the coalition, and are designed to stop either side inadvertently striking the other’s forces on the ground and in the air.
“We continue to see massing, we are concerned about it,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said, noting that “hundreds” of troops were in the area, though smaller numbers were actually inside the deconfliction zone.
Coalition planes dropped leaflets over the weekend warning the pro-regime troops to stay away, he added.
“We have seen them patrolling in the vicinity of the established deconfliction zone, around the At-Tanf training site,” Davis said.
Ahead of the May 18 strike, US military officials tried to use a special channel with the Russians to ask them to tell the pro-regime forces to leave.
Both sides regularly communicate through the hotline and have again spoken over the latest At-Tanf situation.
Davis said it was unknown if any Iranian forces were on the ground but said the troops are “at the very least enabled” by Tehran.
While the United States has been leading a campaign against IS in Syria since 2014, it has for the most part avoided engaging directly in the country’s civil war.
The Pentagon has stressed the May 18 attack did not signal broader US involvement in the civil war, but Damascus condemned the strike.
The development comes in the context of growing tension over which forces will take on IS in Syria’s east.
President Bashar al-Assad’s army is trying to prevent US-backed forces from leading that fight.