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U.S.-Backed Coalition in Syria Strikes Pro-Assad Forces

It was not clear whether the casualties were the forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, or of his allies, which include Russia and Iran-backed militias like the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah. Middle East experts said that direct fighting between Americans and Russians would represent a dangerous escalation in the Syrian fighting.

Kremlin officials said that no Russians had been involved. In a statement, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that the coalition strike was carried out by helicopters, and that it had wounded 25 Syrian insurgents.

The Defense Ministry charged that the American aim in Syria was “capture and retention of economic assets.” The Foreign Ministry said that the American presence was giving shelter to Islamic State fighters.

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst at the Wilson Center, said the forces backing the Syrian government seemed to be testing the coalition’s resolve. But, he added, it was not clear whether the clash marked a new phase of the war in which the United States and its allies would enter more direct confrontation with forces loyal to Mr. Assad.

“We’re now protecting a territory the size of Indiana and deepening our commitment to the S.D.F., with no sense of where this is going, no sense of strategy, no sense of endgame,” said Mr. Miller, who was a State Department official in Republican and Democratic administrations.

The fighting took place Deir al-Zour Province in eastern Syria, between the Euphrates and the Iraqi border. Central Command said the pro-Assad forces had attacked about five miles east of “the agreed-upon Euphrates River de-confliction line.”

The area has developed into a potential flash point, with the S.D.F. and international coalition holding most of the territory northeast of the river — including a significant portion of Syria’s oil production — and the pro-Assad alliance holding most of the land to the southwest.

Tensions heightened recently when the United States announced that it would help to stabilize the S.D.F.-controlled areas, ensure that the Islamic State could not make a comeback, and deter expanding Iranian influence. That angered enemies and allies alike, with the Turks accusing the United States of cementing a Kurdish autonomous zone — as well as de facto Kurdish control over adjacent majority-Arab areas.

Turkey then invaded Afrin, an area farther west that is controlled by another Kurdish group, the Y.P.G., which Ankara considers a terrorist threat. The United States did not intervene, but Turkey has threatened to attack S.D.F. forces in the eastern town of Manbij, where American advisers are present.

American military officials warned on Wednesday that they would defend the area, creating a tense standoff with a NATO ally.

Source: NYT > World

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