The US-led anti-jihadist coalition hit back Sunday at reports its air strikes on an Islamic State group holdout in eastern Syria had killed civilians, appearing to blame their deaths on regime forces.
The jihadist IS group overran large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, declaring a “caliphate” in territory it controlled, but has since lost most of it to various offensives.
In war-torn Syria, multiple offensives have now whittled down territory IS once controlled to a small pocket in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on the Iraqi border.
A Kurdish-led alliance backed by the coalition is battling to expel IS from that holdout on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, while Russian-backed regime forces have been fighting the jihadists west of the river.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said coalition strikes on Saturday killed 43 people, including 36 family members of IS fighters in the village of Abu al-Husn in the jihadist pocket.
But the coalition denied that its air raids there had killed any non-combatants.
The US envoy for the coalition, Brett McGurk, on Sunday appeared to blame regime forces stationed “across the river” for the civilian casualties.
“Reports of civilian casualties attributed to coalition strikes are false. All other forces should cease uncoordinated fires from across the river immediately,” he said on Twitter.
In a statement late Saturday, the coalition reported 19 coalition strikes on IS targets “free of civilian presence” between late Friday and Saturday afternoon in the jihadist enclave, which includes the town of Hajin.
– ‘Other actors’ –
The coalition’s “initial assessment following the strikes is that there was no evidence of civilians near the strikes”, it said.
But the coalition “detected a total of ten additional strikes in the same area of Hajin that did not originate from the coalition or partner forces”, it added.
It called “on all other actors to cease uncoordinated fires across the Euphrates”.
The Observatory said regime forces and IS fighters exchanged fire across the river on Saturday, but pro-government shelling did not hit Abu al-Husn.
The Britain-based war monitor says it obtains its information from sources inside Syria, and determines who carries out air strikes according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions involved.
The US-led international coalition has consistently denied reports by the Observatory in recent weeks that its air raids have killed civilians.
It says it takes allegations of civilian casualties seriously and investigates each one thoroughly.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Since 2014, the US-led coalition has acknowledged direct responsibility for over 1,100 civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq, but rights groups put the number much higher.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who are backed by coalition air strikes, launched an assault to seize the eastern pocket of Hajin from IS in September.
The SDF assault was slowed by a fierce jihadist fightback, and then briefly put on hold to protest Turkish shelling of Kurdish militia positions in northern Syria.
An SDF commander on Saturday said his forces were advancing cautiously due to “fields of landmines, trenches, tunnels and barricades set up by IS”.
– IS loses southern pocket –
To the southwest, regime forces on Saturday regained control of a volcanic plateau between the provinces of Damascus and Sweida on Saturday after weeks of fighting.
Pro-government fighters regained control of Tulul al-Safa “after IS fighters withdrew from it and headed east into the Badia desert”, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The withdrawal likely came “under a deal with the regime forces” after weeks of encirclement and air raids, he said.
State news agency SANA reported regime forces had made “a great advance in Tulul al-Safa” and said they were combing the area for any remaining jihadists.
Government forces had been fighting IS in the area since a deadly jihadist attack on the country’s Druze minority in Sweida province.
In the July 25 attack, IS killed more than 260 people, most of them civilians, in a wave of suicide bombings, shootings, and stabbings in the bloodiest assault on the Druze minority of the war.
Followers of a secretive offshoot of Islam, the Druze are considered heretics by the Sunni extremists of IS.