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Dozens of pro-regime fighters killed in eastern Syria strike

BEIRUT: An Iraqi paramilitary force key to the battle against the Islamic State group yesterday accused the US-led coalition of killing more than 20 of its fighters in an air raid in eastern Syria. The bombing raid hit Al-Hari, a town controlled by regional militias fighting in Syria’s complex seven-year war alongside President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces. Both Syrian authorities and Iraqi forces pointed the finger at the US-led coalition, which denied it was involved in Sunday night’s attack.

The raid slammed into a regime-controlled position in the border town and left at least 52 fighters dead, according to a Britain-based monitor. Among them were fighters from Iraq’s powerful Hashed al-Shaabi military alliance, some of whom have crossed into Syria to fight against IS. “US planes fired two guided missiles at a fixed position of Hashed al-Shaabi units on the border with Syria, killing 22 fighters and wounding 12,” the Iran-backed Hashed said.

The bodies of three Iraqi fighters killed in the raid were returned yesterday to their hometowns for burial, said AFP’s correspondent in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a total of 30 Iraqi forces were among the dead in Al-Hari, as well as 16 Syrian forces and six unidentified fighters.

The attack was first reported overnight by Syrian state media, which cited a military source accusing the coalition of bombing one of its positions in Al-Hari. It said several people were killed and wounded but did not give a specific number or their nationalities. Later yesterday, a military source in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province where the targeted area lies told AFP that coalition warplanes hit “joint Iraqi-Syrian positions in Al-Hari”.

The coalition’s press office said it had received reports of a strike in the area that had killed and wounded Iraqi fighters, but denied it was involved. “There have been no strikes by US or coalition forces in that area,” it told AFP by email. Syria’s army has been gutted by the country’s seven-year conflict and has relied heavily on reinforcements from local militias and from regional allies. Those groups have played a key role in the fight against IS, helping Syrian government forces recapture swathes of the country that the group had overrun in 2014.

Hashed was vital to the fight against IS in Iraq, but has also battled the militants across the border in their eastern Syria bastions. Separate offensives have since whittled down IS territory in Syria to just a handful of pockets in the eastern desert, including in Deir Ezzor province. A US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters and Russia-supported regime forces are carrying out separate operations against those IS-held pockets. The two forces have mostly avoided each other thanks to a de-confliction line that runs across the province along the winding Euphrates River.

Syrian troops are battling IS on the western river bank, while the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fight on the east. Iraqi warplanes also have occasionally bombed IS positions in eastern Syria. Hari lies on the western side, close to the river and the de-confliction line. The buffer has largely been successful in keeping the two offensives apart, but there have been exceptions. The deadliest incident was in February, when US-led coalition air strikes killed at least 100 pro-regime fighters in Deir Ezzor province, including Russians. “The strike on Al-Hari produced the highest death toll for regime forces since the February incident,” Observatory head Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Syria’s conflict began in 2011 with protests against Assad, but then spiralled into a full-blown war that has drawn in world powers and given rise of militants like IS. The strike on Al-Hari came a day after the US-backed SDF announced it had ousted IS from Dashisha, a village to the north in Syria’s Hasakeh province. The village had been one of the last IS-controlled areas in a corridor linking Syria with Iraq. “For the first time in four years, Dashisha, a notorious transit town for weapons, fighters and suicide bombers between Iraq and Syria, is no longer controlled by ISIS (IS) terrorists,” Brett McGurk, the US president’s special envoy for the war against IS, said yesterday.

Separately, Turkey yesterday said it had started military patrols in an area around the Kurdish-held city of Manbij in northern Syria, in line with an agreement with the US to scale down tensions in the region. The Turkish army said in a statement that “patrol activities had begun” between Manbij and an area it controls after a 2016-2017 military incursion. The state-run Anadolu news agency said that Turkish armored vehicles were patrolling “on the Manbij frontline”. It said US forces were also patrolling the area but “independently”.

Manbij, formerly held by IS, is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group dominated by a Kurdish militia Turkey considers to be a terror group but that is supported by the US. The issue of Manbij had become a major flashpoint between the two NATO allies. But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed a roadmap on the future of the city to ease tensions earlier this month.

The move comes as Turkey prepares for tight presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday. Many analysts say President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants a major foreign policy success to give him a final boost. Erdogan hailed the move by the army around Manbij in two campaign rallies in comments loudly cheered by supporters.

Cavusoglu said that Turkish soldiers would “bit by bit” move inside Manbij and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) would move out. “We can say we have started to implement the roadmap” agreed with the United States, he added. A commander with Syrian rebels fighting with the Turkish forces told AFP that the area where the troops had been positioned “is a front line between the opposition and the SDF, according to the road map that was agreed”. Sherfan Darwish, spokesman of the Manbij Military Council which rules the town, confirmed that “Turkish forces did not enter our areas in Manbij and have not crossed the frontlines”. He added that “American forces are carrying out patrols on our forces’ side”.

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