BEIRUT: The US-led coalition said on Thursday it killed at least 100 pro-regime fighters to fend off an attack on its allies in eastern Syria, in one its deadliest confrontations yet with forces backing Damascus.
The initial attack was carried out by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad on key oil and gas installations in parts of Deir Ezzor province controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces.
The clash came against a backdrop of escalating tensions between Washington and Damascus over an uptick in the suspected use of chemical weapons by the regime and allied militia.
Meanwhile, regime warplanes rained bombs for a fourth consecutive day on the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, where the death toll soared to more than 180 since Monday.
According to the US Central Command (CENTCOM), coalition advisers were present in the area that was attacked by pro-government forces in Deir Ezzor province late on Wednesday.
“The coalition conducted strikes against attacking forces to repel the act of aggression” against its own personnel and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hosting them, it said.
“We estimate more than 100 Syrian pro-regime forces were killed while engaging SDF and coalition forces,” a US military official said.
The SDF and the coalition targeted the attacking forces with air strikes and shelling after “20 to 30 artillery and tank rounds landed within 500 metres (yards) of the SDF headquarters location”, the official said.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which only confirmed 45 dead among pro-regime forces, the initial attack took place near Khasham.
The head of the Britain-based monitoring group, Rami Abdel Rahman, said the aim of the attack appeared to be the capture of a key oil field and a major gas plant in an SDF-held area.
The Omar oil field, one of the biggest in Syria, had a pre-war output of 30,000 barrels per day, while the Conoco gas field had a pre-war capacity of 13 million cubic metres a day.
Regime and SDF fighters were involved in several skirmishes in the area last year, as they each conducted parallel operations against some of the militant Islamic State group’s last bastions.
Damascus and the US-backed Kurdish militia once worked towards the same goal in the region but they were never allied, and the collapse of the IS “caliphate” has further strained an already frosty relationship.
Syrian state media confirmed that dozens were killed in the clash but appeared to deny the forces were army soldiers, describing the victims as “popular forces”.
According to the Observatory, the forces that launched the attack on SDF positions were local tribal fighters loyal to Assad and Afghan Shia militia fighting alongside the regime.