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With latest airstrikes, US signals to Iran: Containment is back

The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS waged a series of airstrikes against a military convoy of loyalists to the Syrian regime, CNN has confirmed.

This marks only the second time in the history of the 6-year conflict that American warplanes have intentionally targeted Iranian proxies in Syria. The convoy appears to have consisted not of regular Syrian army soldiers but of international Shia militiamen.

According to a U.S. defense official, a convoy of 20 pro-regime vehicles was headed toward al-Tanf, a military base on the Syrian-Jordanian border, on Wednesday night.

Al-Tanf, which Russian warplanes bombed a year ago in two successive airstrikes, is occupied by U.S. and British Special Forces that are advising an anti-ISIS Syrian rebel group known as Maghawir al-Thawra, or the Commandos of the Revolution.

Thirteen of the vehicles apparently breached the “de-confliction zone” around the base, an area that the coalition has communicated to Moscow to stay well clear of.

U.S. warplanes were first scrambled in a “show of force” against the oncoming convoy. But then five vehicles kept approaching, coming within 29 kilometers of the base when they were finally hit by U.S. aircraft.

The coalition confirmed that the convoy posed a direct threat to “U.S. partner forces” — “despite Russian attempts to dissuade pro-regime movement” toward the base.

The strike marks the first time that the Pentagon has offered aerial protection to its Arab proxies under assault from pro-Syrian militias.

The timing of this American escalation is noteworthy for several reasons.

First, it comes just weeks after U.S. warships in the Mediterranean fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Assad’s Shayrat airbase, which Western intelligence agencies allege was used to launch a deadly chemical weapons attack in northern Syria. That intervention was the first time the U.S. directly attacked the Syrian government.

Second, the al-Tanf skirmish comes just hours after President Donald Trump is scheduled to depart Washington for a tour of the Middle East, his first overseas trip since assuming office. He will travel to Jerusalem and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where he is expected to reassure Israel and America’s Sunni Gulf allies that his administration is committed to containing and deterring Iran, now the principal security underwriter of the Assad regime in Syria.

Third, the U.S. Treasury Department on Wednesday sanctioned two senior Iranian officials, one of whom, the department said in a press statement, “facilitated the sale of explosives and provided other support to Syria.” The other was “the director of the organization responsible for Iran’s solid-fueled ballistic missile program.”

Fourth, the U.S. airstrikes follow on a State Department briefing about the presence of a crematorium for incinerating corpses of political prisoners at the notorious Sednaya jail in Damascus. Allegations about such a facility, reminiscent of the Third Reich’s Final Solution, have circulated in international media for months, yet the U.S. government only just confirmed them this week.

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SOURCE: Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan 

BCNN1 • May 19, 2017

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