Mattis dismisses fears US being dragged into a broader conflict

Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius Aphrem II, gives a sermon during mass at the heavily damaged Syriac Orthodox church of St. Mary in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. (AFP)
Updated 10 February 2018

Mattis dismisses fears US being dragged into a broader conflict

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has dismissed concerns that the US is being dragged into a broader conflict in Syria, after a major clash with pro-Syrian regime forces in Deir Ezzor province that may have left 100 or more dead.
The US-led coalition said it repelled an unprovoked attack near the Euphrates River by hundreds of troops aligned with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who were backed by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.
Mattis described the attack on the US-backed fighters, who were accompanied by US special operations forces, as “perplexing.” But he described the retaliatory US-led coalition strikes as defensive and limited in nature.
Asked whether the US military was stumbling into Syria’s broader conflict, Mattis said: “No. This is self-defense.”
“If we were getting involved in a broader conflict, then it would have had an initiative on our part,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.
“For some reason, pro-regime forces — and again, I cannot give you any explanation of why they would do this — moved against SDF positions” where US special forces were also on the ground, Mattis said.
The pro-Damascus forces “began shelling it with artillery,” he added. “They were moving with tanks, obviously in the same direction as they were firing.
“At the end of our effort to defend ourselves, their artillery was knocked out, two of their tanks were knocked out, they had casualties.”
Mattis did not offer a specific death toll. The Pentagon would not confirm the figure given by the US official late Wednesday.
The US-led side quickly contacted their Russian counterparts to attempt to ensure the situation did not escalate, Mattis said, adding: “The Russians, at that time, were telling us they did not have forces there.”
The fighting took place less than 10 km east of the so-called “deconfliction zone” set up by the US and Russia along the Euphrates River, with Russian forces to the west and US forces to the east.
Moscow and Washington coordinate their air and ground operations against Daesh in this zone.
Mattis said he could not identify the attackers.
“We know they were pro-regime forces but... Iranian, Assad, Russians, mercenaries... I can’t tell you,” he said.
He explained that the US-led coalition had picked up on the movements of pro-regime forces in the area a few days before, but they were not immediately hostile.
Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told a news briefing that Washington was not “looking for a conflict with the regime.”
The incident underscored the potential for further conflict in Syria’s oil-rich east, where the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias holds swathes of land after its offensive against Islamic State.
Assad, who is supported by Russia and by Shiite militias backed by Iran, has said he wants to take back every inch of Syria.
The pro-regime forces were “likely seeking to seize oilfields in Khusham” east of the Euphrates in Deir Ezzor province, said a US official on condition of anonymity.
US Sen. Tim Kaine, who sits on Senate foreign relations and military oversight committees, said the episode raised serious concerns about the open-ended US military presence in Syria.
“I am gravely concerned that the Trump administration is purposefully stumbling into a broader conflict, without a vote of Congress or clear objectives,” Kaine said.
No US or US-backed forces died but the US official who spoke anonymously estimated that more than 100 pro-Syrian regime forces were killed in the counter-attack.
The US-led coalition was set up in 2014 to battle Daesh in both Syria and Iraq, who were largely defeated last year. Some 2,000 US forces remain on the ground in Syria, allied to the Kurdish-led SDF alliance, which holds the largest swathe of territory still outside the control of the government.

Yemen govt, Houthis to start first phase of Hodeidah pullout

Updated 19 February 2019

Yemen govt, Houthis to start first phase of Hodeidah pullout

  • The UN statement said both sides ‘made important progress on planning for the redeployment of forces as envisaged in the Hodeidah agreement.’
  • Under Phase 1, the Houthis would withdraw from the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef, used for grains, and Ras Isa, used for oil.

NEW YORK: Yemen’s government and the Houthi militias have agreed on the first stage of a mutual pullout of forces from the port city of Hodeidah, a key entry point for humanitarian aid, the United Nations said.

The Iran-aligned Houthi movement and the government agreed in talks in December to withdraw troops by Jan. 7 from Hodeidah under a truce accord aimed at averting a full-scale assault on the port and paving the way for negotiations to end the four-year-old war.

“The parties reached an agreement on Phase 1 of the mutual redeployment of forces,” the UN spokesman’s office said in a statement without giving details on what was agreed.

Under Phase 1, the Houthis would withdraw from the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef, used for grains, and Ras Isa, used for oil. This would be met by a retreat of Saudi-led coalition forces from the eastern outskirts of Hodeidah, where battles raged before a cease-fire went into effect on Dec. 18.

The Houthis occupy Hodeidah, the main entry point for the bulk of Yemen’s commercial and aid imports, while Yemeni government forces loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi are massed on the outskirts.

The UN statement said the two sides also agreed “in principle” on Phase 2, entailing full redeployment of both parties’ forces in Hodeidah province.

Two sources involved in the negotiations said both sides had yet to agree on a withdrawal timeline or on a mechanism for local forces to take over security at the ports and city.

“The UN is still discussing how to reduce the gap between the two sides on how to choose the forces that will control the city,” one source told Reuters.

The parties could decide within 7-10 days on where they would reposition forces, said the other source, adding that Houthi fighters could pull back as far as 20 km from the port.

Disagreement on withdrawal had delayed opening humanitarian corridors in Yemen.

Under the first phase, the two sides agreed to reopen main roads linking Hodeidah to the Houthi-occupied capital Sanaa and in Yemen’s third city of Taiz, said a UN source.

They also agreed to enable access to Red Sea Mills, which holds some 50,000 tons of World Food Program grain, enough to feed 3.7 million people for a month, the source said. Access to the site has been cut off since September due to fighting.

The Hodeidah truce has largely been respected but there have been intermittent skirmishes in flashpoints on the city’s edges.

Hodeidah became the focus of the war last year when the coalition twice launched an offensive to seize the port and weaken the Houthis by cutting of their main supply line.