U.S. Coalition Says It 'May Have' Launched Syria Strike That Killed Scores of Civilians, According to Monitor

The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) said Friday it may have conducted a strike that activists said killed dozens of civilians in eastern Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitor with ties to the Syrian opposition, reported that "at least 54" people were killed in U.S.-led coalition airstrikes targeting ISIS near an ice factory at the Muzan junction, just east of Al-Soussa in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor. The monitor said the casualties "included 28 civilians, most of them Iraqi nationals" who had fled to Syria earlier on during the war against the jihadis that took over half of both countries in 2014.

When reached for comment, a coalition spokesperson said that "the coalition or our partner forces may have conducted strikes in the vicinity of Al Soussa and Baghour Fukhani yesterday," in a statement carried by Reuters.

The coalition said the reports would be forwarded to its "Civilian Casualty Cell for further assessment" and that "we have no further information at this time."

In Syria, a U.S. Marine fires an M777A2 howitzer in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces as part of the Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS, on June 3, 2017. Sergeant Matthew Callahan/U.S. Marine Corps/Department of Defense

The small pocket of jihadi control targeted Thursday lies on the border of not only Syria and Iraq, but of multiple and sometimes overlapping anti-ISIS campaigns. The U.S.-led coalition and its partnered Syrian Democratic Forces launched a major offensive against the last of the ISIS militants on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, where the attack took place, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airstrikes were accompanied by Syrian Democratic Forces shelling near the towns of Al-Shafa, Al-Soussa and Hajin.

Just across the river, the Syrian government waged its own campaign against the jihadis with the help of Russia and Iran. Prior to forming a coalition to defeat ISIS in 2014, the U.S. supported a 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and offered assistance to rebels trying to unseat the Syrian leader. As a result, the Syrian government considers U.S.-led coalition presence illegitimate. The U.S.-led coalition does not directly coordinate with Assad, though it maintains a deconfliction line with his Russian ally.

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Iraq, which considers itself an ally of both rival factions, has also launched airstrikes against ISIS in eastern Syria. The Iraqi government coordinated closely with the U.S.-led coalition in the battle to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Baghdad has sought to extend this fight into Syria to protect the massive border shared by the two countries. Since Moscow's intervention in Syria in 2015, however, Iraq has also maintained a joint operations room with Iran, Russia and Syria. Israel has also launched airstrikes in Syria, often against military positions it associates with its greatest foe, Iran.

The crowded lines of control and areas of operation have occasionally led to clashes between different forces fighting ISIS. The U.S.-led coalition struck pro-Syrian government fighters on several occasions, including a February clash that reportedly killed hundreds of militiamen—including Russians—fighting on behalf of Assad in Deir Ezzor. Other times, however, the identity of the aggressor was less clear; last month, both the U.S. and Israel were blamed for deadly strikes that killed pro-Syrian government fighters in Deir Ezzor.

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, trained by the U.S.-led coalition, participate in the graduation ceremony of their first regiment in al-Kasrah, in the suburb of eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, on May 21. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Per its latest civilian casualty report last month, the U.S.-led coalition estimated that "at least 939 civilians have been unintentionally killed by Coalition strikes" between June 2014 and May 2018. In March, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights assigned blame to the coalition for 2,967 civilian deaths. Fellow U.K.-based, pro-opposition monitor the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported 2,673 civilian deaths, both in Syria alone.

The Syrian military and its allies have also been accused of mounting civilian casualties in their own campaign to restore all of Syria under Assad's control. In its latest offensive, the Syrian government has managed to mostly secure the country's restive southwest in a lightning offensive that saw the Syrian flag raised Thursday in Daraa, which was one of the last rebel-held cities in the country.

With the northwestern province of Idlib the last major bastion of insurgent-controlled territory, and ISIS reduced to even smaller pockets of influence, the Syrian government has regained control of most of the country, leaving about a quarter of it in the hands of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, whose large Kurdish faction has worked both against and in support of the Syrian government at various times throughout the war.