US officials have said that it was Israel who bombed pro-Assad forces in eastern Syria early Monday, reportedly killing at least 50 regime troops and Iranian-backed Iraqi militia.
If true, the operations would be the first by the Israelis in the area along the Iraq border in the 87-month Syrian conflict.
The Assad military initially blamed the US-led coalition for the strike near al-Bukamal on the border. The US Central Command denied any responsibility. Iraqi officials said they had no involvement, expressing “rejection and condemnation” of the bombing.
Later on Monday unnamed US officials told both CNN and AFP, “We have reasons to believe that it was an Israeli strike.”
The officials did not say whether the Pentagon had provided the Israelis with the coordinates of the pro-Assad positions.
The Israel Defense Forces have periodically struck pro-Assad targets throughout the conflict. Initially the attacks concentrated on preventing delivery of weapons and missiles to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an ally propping up the regime, but they have expanded this year to aim at Iranian as well as other pro-Assad personnel and operations. The Israelis carried out their most widespread raids in mid-April, hitting regime and Iranian positions in central Syria as well as the southwest, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
An extension into eastern Syria would also widen Israel’s aim. Tel Aviv has always maintained the need to keep Hezbollah and Iranian forces away from the Golan. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pressing publicly for the withdrawal of all Iranian and Iranian-led foreign personnel from the country.
Netanyahu repeated on Sunday, after a Cabinet meeting, “[We are] taking action against efforts to establish a military 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.”
In line with standard practice, the IDF and the Netanyahu Government refused to comment on Monday’s attacks. Iranian State outlets are posting the reports from international media of the US statements.
Pro-Assad outlets said most of the casualties were regime troops. However, unconfirmed claims from the area said more than half were Iraqi militia under Iranian command. The Iran-back Hashed al-Shaabi militia gave weight to those claims, saying, “US planes fired two guided missiles at a fixed position…on the border with Syria, killing 22 fighters and wounding 12”.
Since 2012, Iran has been responsible for much of the pro-Assad armed forces on the ground, organizing a 50,000-strong National Defense Force and bringing in thousands of Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani fighters as well as coordinating with Hezbollah.