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
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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.


Lebanon tells Syria development law could hinder refugees’ return

Updated 26 May 2018
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Lebanon tells Syria development law could hinder refugees’ return

BEIRUT: Lebanon expressed concern to Syria on Saturday over a new law aimed at redeveloping areas devastated by seven years of war, saying the initiative could hinder the return of many Syrian refugees to their homeland.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil wrote in a letter to his Syrian counterpart Walid Al-Moualem that the terms of “Law 10” could make it difficult for refugees to prove property ownership, and in turn discourage some from returning.
The legislation came into effect last month as the army was on the brink of crushing the last insurgent enclaves near Damascus, consolidating President Bashar Assad’s grip over nearly all of western Syria.
It allows people to prove they own property in the areas chosen for redevelopment, and to claim compensation. But aid groups say the chaos of war means few will be able to do so in the time specified. The law has yet to be applied.
Bassil, whose country hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, voiced concern over the limited time frame given for refugees to prove possession of their properties.
“The inability of the refugees to practically present what proves their possession (of their properties) during the given time limit might lead to them losing their properties and their sense of national identity,” Bassil said in the letter, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
“This would deprive them of one of the main incentives for their come return to Syria,” he added, echoing comments earlier this week by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri.
Hariri said the law “tells thousands of Syrian families to stay in Lebanon” by threatening them with property confiscation.
Bassil sent a similar letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, calling for action to protect the rights of Syrian refugees in maintaining their properties.