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.


Lavrov says Russia has invited Syria's Assad to visit Russia and Crimea - Interfax

Updated 16 October 2018
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Lavrov says Russia has invited Syria's Assad to visit Russia and Crimea - Interfax

LONDON: Russia has invited Syrian President Bashar Assad to visit Russia, including Crimea, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, according to Interfax.
“The head of the Republic of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, recently visited Damascus on the invitation of President Assad.
He naturally conveyed, in line with normal diplomatic practices, an invitation to President Assad from the Russian leadership to visit the Russian Federation, including Crimea,” Lavrov said in an interview with the Euronews television channel.

Russian news agencies reported on Tuesday that Assad has tentative plans to visit Crimea in April 2019 and is in talks about starting regular passenger flights between Syria and the Black Sea peninsula,

Crimea has been under Western sanctions since it was annexed from Ukraine by Russia in 2014.
Russia is a key ally of Assad in Syria’s seven-year long conflict and the leaders of two other Russia-backed breakaway regions, Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia, also visited Damascus this year.