BEIRUT: The US-led anti-militant coalition hit back Sunday at reports its air strikes on a Daesh group holdout in eastern Syria had killed civilians, appearing to accuse regime forces of targeting the area.
The militant Daesh group overran large swathes of Syria and neighboring 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 Daesh 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 Daesh from that holdout on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, while Russian-backed regime forces have been fighting the militants west of the river.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said coalition strikes on Saturday killed 43 people, including 36 family members of Daesh fighters in the village of Abu Al-Husn in the militant 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 bombarding the area.
“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 Daesh targets “free of civilian presence” between late Friday and Saturday afternoon in the militant enclave, which includes the town of Hajjin.
But the coalition “detected a total of ten additional strikes in the same area of Hajjin 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 Daesh 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 investigates allegations of civilian casualties 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 the coalition, launched an assault to seize the eastern pocket around Hajjin from Daesh in September.
The SDF assault was slowed by a fierce militant fightback, and then briefly put on hold to protest Turkish shelling of Kurdish militia positions in northern Syria.
An SDF commander Saturday said his forces were advancing cautiously due to “fields of land mines, trenches, tunnels and barricades set up by IS,” referring to another acronym for Daesh.
On another front, regime forces on Saturday regained control from Daesh of a volcanic plateau in the south of the country after weeks of fighting.
Pro-government fighters took over Tulul Al-Safa between the provinces of Damascus and Sweida “after IS fighters withdrew from it and headed east into the Badia desert,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
State news agency SANA reported regime forces had made “a great advance in Tulul Al-Safa” and were combing the area for any remaining militants.
Government forces had been fighting Daesh in Tulul Al-Safa since a deadly militant attack against the country’s Druze minority in Sweida province on July 25.
In the deadliest attack against the Druze in the seven-year war, Daesh killed more than 260 people, most of them civilians, in suicide bombings, shootings, and stabbings.
Saturday’s victory in Tulul Al-Safa leaves Daesh contained in the Deir Ezzor pocket, although it also has a presence in the vast Badia desert stretching across the country to the Iraqi border.
After pushing back the militants from parts of northeastern Syria, analysts say the SDF is also likely to oust Daesh eventually from its eastern holdout.
“IS does not have great chances to remain in control of the pocket of Hajjin,” said Julien Theron of the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
The coalition-SDF alliance “has already shown a great efficiency against IS-held territory in the recent past,” he said.