U.S. Military Denies, Israel Declines to Comment on Iraq-Syria Border Strike Reports

The U.S. military has denied conducting airstrikes against Iraqi militias operating in eastern Syria near the border with Iraq, and Israeli forces would not comment on the alleged incident.

Speaking on behalf of the U.S.-led coalition tasked with fighting the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in the region in comments referred to Newsweek by the Pentagon, Army Colonel Wayne Morotto said he "can confirm we did not conduct air strikes in Al-Bukamal, Sept. 14, 2021."

The statement followed reports from Sabreen News, an Iraqi outlet affiliated with pro-Iran "Axis of Resistance" elements opposed to the U.S. military presence in both Iraq and Syria, stating that four Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) missiles fired by a U.S. drone destroyed three vehicles attached to a convoy of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces and infrared monitoring equipment said to be used to prevent infiltration by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

Footage accompanying the reports appeared to show at least two burning vehicles on the Syrian side of the border with Iraq.

Shown footage purported to portray the attack's aftermath, a spokesperson for the Popular Mobilization Forces, a state-sponsored umbrella of Iraqi paramilitary groups, told Newsweek the clip depicted "an airstrike within the Syrian border" and "there is no presence of ours outside the Iraqi border."

The official Syrian Arab News Agency contradicted the Popular Mobilization Forces position, claiming to cite a member of the Iraqi militia collective in Iraq's Al-Anbar province as saying "warplanes and drones directed four missiles at the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization regiments that are securing the Syrian-Iraqi border strip."

In response, the Popular Mobilization Forces spokesperson told Newsweek, "we are awaiting an official position."

The Popular Mobilization Forces were formed with support from Iran in response to the rise of ISIS in Iraq and fought alongside Iraqi security forces against the jihadis. The U.S. too backed the Iraqi military, as well as Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

In Syria, the U.S.-led coalition and its mostly Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Allies, along with a separate campaign led by the Syrian government and its allies Iran and Russia, have fought ISIS. But tensions have emerged between the two common opponents of ISIS, as the U.S. coalition has not coordinated with the central government in Damascus, led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel is also active in Syria, having occupied the southwestern Golan Heights for decades, It has conducted hundreds of strikes against suspected Iran-linked positions that Israeli officials have accused of setting up forward operating bases and transferring advanced munitions.

After the U.S. denial, Sabreen News analysts blamed Israel for the attack.

Reached for comment by Newsweek, the Israel Defense Forces declined to comment as a matter of protocol.

"We don't comment on foreign reports," the IDF spokesperson said.

Iraq, Syria, border, crossing, Bukamal, Qaim
Members of the Syrian security forces gather on the Syrian side of the border-crossing between Al-Bukamal in Syria and Al-Qaim in Iraq, on September 30, 2019 after the crossing re-opened. AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based activist-led monitoring network supportive of the country's exiled opposition, reported that "unidentified aircraft" had struck a convoy of trucks belonging to Iran-aligned militias in the countryside of Al-Bukamal, Deir Ezzor province. The organization later reported that three fighters were killed, citing unnamed sources.

The latest strikes come on the day when Assad was on a rare trip outside the country to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Russia and Iran have supported the Syrian leader throughout a decade-long civil war against rebels once backed by the U.S. and partnered forces, as well as jihadis including ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

Since taking office in January, President Joe Biden has twice before ordered strikes against suspected Iran-backed militias. Both attacks followed rocket attacks launched by Iraqi militias against U.S. military positions in Iraq and each time the U.S. targeted the Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada militias, which are supportive of Iran and are affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces.

Unlike in Syria, the U.S. military operates in Iraq as part of an agreement with the Iraqi government, currently led by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, with whom Biden announced in July that the U.S. would end its combat mission in the country but retain a training and advisory presence.

On Sunday, Morotto had said that U.S. troops in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, came under attack a day earlier by unmanned aerial systems.

"Force protection counter measures were used to defeat the drones. 1 UAS impacted inside perimeter; 1 UAS impacted outside perimeter. There are no injuries or property damage," Morotto tweeted at the time.

He argued that all attacks against the government of Iraq and its security forces, Kurdish region peshmerga fighters and the U.S.-led coalition "undermines the authority of Iraqi institutions, the rule of law and Iraqi National sovereignty," and also "endanger the lives of civilians, & the partner forces from the ISF, Peshmerga & Coalition."

While Iraq retains its partnership with the U.S., Baghdad also maintains close ties to Tehran, where Kadhimi traveled Sunday to meet newly sworn-in Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. The two sides vowed to broaden their both political and economic ties.

On Tuesday, Raisi spoke with Putin and the two also affirmed support for further cooperation. Both Iran and Russia have repeatedly condemned external intervention in Syria not granted permission by Damascus.