A drone that U.S. officials say was likely connected to Iranian-supported Hezbollah militias fired on U.S.-backed troops Thursday near a military camp in southern Syria where the U.S.-led coalition is training Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State group.
U.S. defense officials said the weapon fired by the drone did not detonate and no one was hurt, but Army Col. Ryan Dillon told reporters at the Pentagon that it carried more weapons and was considered a direct threat, so a manned U.S. aircraft shot it down.
The attack came just hours after the U.S. bombed Syrian government and allied troops inside a protected zone in that area, and marked a sharp escalation in the skirmishes between the coalition and those pro-Syrian government forces there. And it appeared to make good on a Hezbollah threat issued Wednesday, saying that it would strike American forces in that area.
Dillon said this was the first time that forces supporting Damascus had attacked coalition troops in that region, which is near the training camp in Tanf, close to the border with Jordan. He declined to say who owned or operated the drone, but other officials said it was likely Iranian or Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
The officials were not authorized to discuss the details publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The forces that were fired on by the drone included Syrian rebel fighters and coalition troops, and they were on a routine patrol outside of the protected zone, Dillon said in a telephone conference from the Iraqi capital.
Officials said it was not clear whether the drone attack was in response to the coalition bombing of the Syrian government and allied troops several hours earlier. It was the third time the U.S.-led coalition has bombed troops in the protected zone.
In each case, U.S. officials have said the pro-government forces were either advancing toward Tanf or were readying weapons and were perceived as a threat to the training camps. The U.S. has refused to specify the makeup of those forces inside the protected zone, but Dillon for the first time on Thursday said they include Syrian government troops. Other U.S. officials have acknowledged that they also include Hezbollah fighters.
The Lebanese militant group, closely allied with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, warned on Wednesday that it would strike American positions in Syria if they cross any “red lines.” The threat was issued through Hezbollah’s military media arm, and included footage of what it said was an Iranian drone tailing an American drone over eastern Syria. It’s not known whether that was the drone shot down by the U.S. on Thursday.
Iran is a chief backer of Hezbollah and the Syrian government and is deeply involved in the Syrian civil war.
Dillon said that also in each instance, the U.S. used an established phone line with the Russians to warn the pro-Syrian government troops to leave the protected zone.