US says Iranian-directed convoy targeted by US strike in Syria

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stands in front of a map of Syria and Iraq during a news conference at the Pentagon on Friday to give an update on the Daesh group. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Updated 20 May 2017

US says Iranian-directed convoy targeted by US strike in Syria

WASHINGTON: The United States said on Friday it believed forces in a convoy targeted by US military aircraft in southern Syria on Thursday were Iranian-directed, in a possible sign of increased tension between Washington and Tehran in the Syrian war.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon that the US strike was defensive in nature. It was condemned by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has the backing of Iran and Russia.
A member of the US-backed Syrian rebel forces told Reuters on Thursday the convoy comprised Syrian and Iranian-backed militias and was headed toward the garrison in Syria used by US and US-backed forces around the town of At Tanf.
The United States determined that the convoy posed a threat.
“It was necessitated ... by offensive movement with offensive capability of what we believe were Iranian-directed — I don’t know there were Iranians on the ground — but by Iranian-directed forces,” Mattis said at a news conference.
Opposition sources have warned of advances by Syrian army and Iranian-backed militia in the region near the strategic Damascus-Baghdad highway, which was once a major weapons supply route for Iranian weapons.
Mattis said he believed the Iranian-directed forces moved into the zone against the advice of Russia but that he was unable to confirm that with certainty.
“But it looks like the Russians tried to dissuade them,” Mattis said.
A Western intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, has said the strike sent a strong message to Iranian-backed militias that they would not be allowed to reach the Iraq border from Syria.
Syrian government negotiator Bashar Al-Ja’afari said on Friday he had raised the incident with UN mediator Staffan de Mistura at peace talks in Geneva.
“We discussed the massacre that the US aggressor committed yesterday in our country. This subject was widely discussed,” Ja’afari told reporters.
Thursday’s air strike did not on its own suggest a shift in the US military’s focus in Syria, which has been on battling Daesh militants.
But the latest move showed that the area around the Tanf garrison in southern Syria could be under pressure.
US Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had been working on ways to manage Syria’s messy battlefield with Russia. There is no interaction between the US and Syrian militaries.
“We had a proposal that we’re working on with the Russians right now. I won’t share the details,” Dunford said.
“But my sense is that the Russians are as enthusiastic as we are to deconflict operations and ensure that we can continue to take the campaign to ISIS and ensure the safety of our personnel,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State or Daesh.


Iranian chess referee seeking asylum reveals second reason she can’t go home

Updated 12 min 58 sec ago

Iranian chess referee seeking asylum reveals second reason she can’t go home

  • Women are required to wear the hijab in public in Iran, and those who refuse can face prison
  • Bayat was declared a public enemy by Iranian hard-liners after photos of her emerged from a match with her headscarf around her neck

LONDON: The Iranian chess referee forced to seek asylum in the UK after letting her hijab slip during a match in Shanghai this year has revealed another reason she may never be able to return to her country — her secret Jewish heritage.
Shohreh Bayat told The Daily Telegraph that she had to conceal her family background in her native Iran.
“If they knew I had Jewish background, I would never be general secretary of the Iranian chess federation,” Bayat told the British newspaper.
The leading referee said she had heard anti-Jewish remarks made by chess officials in Iran.
Bayat was declared a public enemy by Iranian hard-liners and received death threats after photos of her emerged from the Women’s World Chess Championship in January with her red headscarf around her neck rather than covering her head.
“All my life was about showing a fake image of myself to society because they wanted me to be an image of a religious Muslim woman, which I wasn’t,” Bayat said, speaking about the Iranian regime.
The 33-year-old said she is not a fan of the hijab, but felt she had to comply — even if that meant covering only a tiny amount of hair.
Women are required to wear the hijab in public in Iran, and those who refuse can face prison.
After being photographed at the world championship match with her hijab around her neck, Bayat said she was warned by family and friends not to return home.
“My mobile was full of messages saying: ‘Please, don’t come back, they will arrest you’,” she told the newspaper.
“I woke up the following day and saw that the (Iranian) federation removed my picture — it was like I didn’t exist,” she said.
Despite death threats, Bayat continued refereeing the second leg of the tournament in Vladivostok, ignoring calls from Iranian officials for a public apology.
At the end of January, she changed her return ticket and traveled to the UK —  the only Western country where she held a valid visa — and applied for asylum. She is waiting for her application to be processed.

Bayat's paternal grandmother was Jewish and moved to Iran from Azeraijan’s capital Baku during the Second World War. 
Last week, Bayat celebrated the Jewish New Year for the first time in her life.
“It was amazing. It was a thing I never had a chance to do,” she said.