Winnefeld on US Clash with Syrian Forces

Syrian fighters and their trainers attend a graduation ceremony at the end of a US-led training program | Delil Souleiman  AFP via Getty Images

The Pentagon insists it is keeping its focus on defeating IS, but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday US-backed fighters in eastern Syria faced a "perplexing" overnight assault by about 300 pro-Syrian government fighters whose nationalities, motives and makeup he could not identify.

The new aggression by USA troops and allied countries against troops loyal to President, Bashar Al-Assad, comes at a time when Turkey is developing a strong offensive in the Syrian enclave of Afrin and other northern areas against Kurdish-Arab forces.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, meanwhile, said it had confirmed only 20 dead among the pro-government forces.

100 people is a lot to kill, particularly since the United States supposedly isn't at war with Syria.

SANA said earlier that forces of the US-led worldwide coalition targeted popular forces that were fighting the Islamic State group and the USA -backed Syrian Democratic Forces in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour. In other words, can we defend a non-state force under global legal terms of self-defense when it comes under attack?

"I'm not sure why [regime forces] would do this, because it was [an SDF] headquarters", Mattis said, adding that the Russians told the U.S. military they did not have forces there.

A US military official told CNN that the area where the USA coalition and SDF compound is located contains lucrative oilfields and the Syrian government forces "were likely seeking to seize oilfields in Khusham that had been a major source of revenue for [Islamic State] from 2014 to 2017".

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State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Thursday that the U.S.is supporting a United Nations call for a month-long "cessation of violence", with the goal of allowing humanitarian aid and medical care to flow to more than 700 civilians in the besieged suburbs, according to the Associated Press.

More than 100 pro-regime fighters were killed, the official added.

The US-led coalition was established in 2014 to fight the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, but it has bombed troops loyal to Damascus on several occasions. However, there were no casualties that have been reported from the U.S. military.

According to the US Central Command (CENTCOM), coalition advisers were present in the area that was attacked by pro-government forces in Deir Ezzor province late on Wednesday.

"Along with ground based fire support, these aircraft released multiple precision fire munitions and conducted strafing runs against the aggressor force, stopping their advance and destroying multiple artillery pieces and tanks", a spokesperson for U.S. Air Forces CENTCOM, told CNN.

"The recent incident once again shows that the United States' illegal military presence in Syria is actually aimed at taking control of the country's economic assets and not at fighting against ISIS", a statement said.

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