A day after a mysterious airstrike close to the Iraq-Syria border reportedly killed over 30 Syrian government soldiers and Iraqi paramilitary forces backed by Iran, a US official has told CNN the attack was carried out by Israel and not by the US coalition.
Syrian state media blamed the strike on the US-led coalition — though in the immediate aftermath any level of confirmation or evidence was hard to come by. The claims prompted the US coalition spokesman to issue a formal denial, calling Syria's accusation "misinformation" as US-backed SDF forces are only operating east of the Euphrates, and not near Abu Kamal, which lies west, according to the statement.
If confirmed it would mark the first time in the war that Iraq's paramilitary forces have been targeted by Israel. The Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU, or PMF) have increasingly coordinated with the Syrian Army as well as pro-Syrian irregular Shia fighters during anti-ISIS operations along Syria's eastern border of late.
The incident marks the second time in three weeks that the Syrian Army has accused the US Coalition of bombing their troops in southeast Syria; however it is uncertain as yet how Damascus will respond to this new claim of Israeli responsibility.
The CNN source is an unnamed US official, who gave no other details on the strike, including how many jets conducted the mission or the flight path into the Iraq-Syria border area, though CNN notes, "The area is some distance from Israel and Israeli jets would have had to overcome significant logistical hurdles to strike that area."
This is a very big deal because it’s first time Israel:— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) June 18, 2018
•Targets Iraqi Shi’a Militias in Syria
•Goes as far as BouKamal
•strikes in area with heavy US and Russia and Regime Air Force
And as Al Masdar News points out, Israel "has never attacked the Syrian military this far from their border, so if they were behind this – this would be the first time they have every bombed the Deir Ezzor Governorate."
The last confirmed Israeli strike in Deir Ezzor was in 2007, when Israel destroyed an alleged nuclear reactor in al-Kibar. Up until now in the war confirmed there have been acknowledged Israeli attacks in western Syria, around Damascus, and in the Homs desert (T-4 airbase).
Syrian military sources initially told Reuters that the strikes were conducted by attack drones flying from the direction of U.S. lines. Syrian forces did not respond to the attacks which left dozens of Syrian Army, allied National Defense Forces (NDF), and Iraqi paramilitary troops killed and wounded in the town of Al-Harri, in the Abu Kamal countryside.
Though casualty numbers have varied slightly — with opposition media site SOHR citing 38 and pro-government sources citing well over 40 — it marks a significant escalation given the high death toll against units which were in the midst of battling remnant ISIS pockets in Syria's east.
The attack came the same day that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a cabinet meeting, "We will take action - and are already taking action - against efforts to establish a militarily presence by Iran and its proxies in Syria both close to the border and deep inside Syria. We will act against these efforts anywhere in Syria."
Netanyahu's words follow similar statements made last week wherein he accused Iran of importing 80,000 Shia fighters into the Syrian conflict from places like Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to both "covert" Syrian Sunnis and prepare attacks against Israel, claiming that a broader "religious war" would emerge.
“That is a recipe for a re-inflammation of another civil war - I should say a theological war, a religious war - and the sparks of that could be millions more that go into Europe and so on ... And that would cause endless upheaval and terrorism in many, many countries,” Netanyahu said before an international security forum in Jerusalem last Thursday.
“Obviously we are not going to let them do it. We’ll fight them. By preventing that - and we have bombed the bases of this, these Shi’ite militias - by preventing that, we are also offering, helping the security of your countries, the security of the world,” he said.
Currently, new reports of a "massive build-up" of Syrian Army troops and their allies in Syria's south continue to emerge after Assad recently reaffirmed his desire to liberate "every inch" of sovereign Syrian territory. As the army conducts operations increasingly close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the likelihood of more direct Syria-Israel clashes to come is high.