The US-led coalition against ISIS struck pro-Syrian government forces for the third time in recent weeks, prompting speculation among Syrians about what it means for their civil war, even as the US military tries to downplay its significance.
“We certainly welcome any strike against the regime, but we want the real efforts to support the Syrian people and not to increase division in the region,” said Mustafa Serjari, a spokesperson for the Al-Mutasem brigade, a Syrian rebel group backed by the US.
BuzzFeed News first reported in May that US forces have been stationed at a base in Al Tanf, in southeastern Syria, for over six months now as part of a mission to train members of the Syrian opposition meant to aid in the fight against ISIS. In each instance where the US has fired on pro-Syrian forces, the US military has said, armed vehicles have entered an area that Russia, which backs the regime, and the US had agreed to be neutral ground. The strikes, which have destroyed several vehicles, were meant to push the pro-regime forces to fall back across the line.
“What is happening in Syria is a genuine conflict of influence,” Serjari said. “These strikes only began when the regime and the Iranian militia decided to plow the papers and move into forbidden areas. The question here is why aren’t the Iranian regime and militias not being targeted in other areas?”
The nature of the strikes — both in their focus in one location and gaining tempo — is prompting some activists to have hope that the war will broaden into a true US intervention against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the clashes are opening the door to rampant speculation among the opposition about the true goals of the US.
“I think there is a plan to divide Syria under US supervision, which explains the aerial bombing of foreign militias who support the Syrian regime near Al Tanf crossing,” said Ahmad Abdulazez, a Syrian activist based in Idlib. “Why didn’t they bomb them in other parts of Syria? There are a lot of groups trained and supported by the US government who have been attacked, but the US hasn’t defended them and has, in fact, rejected any request from US-backed rebel leaders to push back the Syrian regime and their militias.”
“We welcome any US intervention to save the Syrian people, even if it is too late, but we do not accept any goals to divide the country,” Abdulazez said. “The United States must protect all factions it backs throughout the country, not only in Tanf.”
But the Pentagon has sought to make clear that Tanf is a special case and that the US isn’t spoiling for a fight against the regime. “The Coalition's mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” the Pentagon’s statement on the strike released Thursday read. “The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces partnered with them. The demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces near Coalition and partner forces in southern Syria, however, continue to concern us and the Coalition will take appropriate measures to protect our forces.”
That hasn’t kept members of the opposition from holding out hope that a wider intervention is still coming.
“The American intervention in Syria is in the interest of the Syrian revolution because US is a superpower and it doesn’t have ambitions in Syria the way Russia, Turkey or Iran do,” said Muzakhim al-Sallum, a news manager for Hamurabi’s Justice Agency, a publication with close ties to US-backed rebel groups. “The Americans in particular need to take a serious step to deter the [Iranian and Assad] militias because every group that gets supports from the US and other allies are under heavy and violent attack from forces loyal to the Syrian regime.”
Meanwhile, the Syrian government is using the strikes to label the US’s motives as not what they’ve claimed publicly. Syrian news website Al-Mayadeen, quoting an unnamed military source, said the attack exposes the falsehood of the international coalition’s claims that it is fighting terrorism. “The Syrian Arab Army is fighting terrorism on its own territory and no other group has the right to determine the course and direction of its operations,” the military source told the website.