U.S. says Iranian forces struck American outpost in Syria

Sept. 23 (Bloomberg) — Iranian forces attacked an American military outpost in Syria, America’s military said, escalating hostilities in the region and sparking a barrage of fire by the U.S.-led coalition against Iran-backed forces, according to an American official.

The attack occurred at around 1:15 p.m. local time on Saturday at an outpost northwest of the Syrian city of Homs, according to the official, who didn’t want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Iran has thousands of armed and paramilitary personnel in Syria and has tried to use those fighters to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s civil war. American officials have long accused Iran of conducting attacks on its territory in Syria.

The U.S. fired back about 20 Tomahawk cruise missiles at what it said was a Syrian military base used by pro-Syrian government forces on Saturday, just hours after the Syrian army said that a drone targeted a number of its units.

A statement from the U.S. Central Command said it had conducted airstrikes on pro-Syrian government forces and “associated capabilities” near al-Tanf, which is near the Iraq-Syria border. The U.S. military has stationed troops in the area and conducted initial assessments that the strikes had destroyed more than two dozen aircraft, armored vehicles and artillery.

“Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian military personnel and equipment,” it said.

Some 60 Iranian forces were also killed, President Donald Trump told reporters, without giving any further details. He said the Iran-backed forces had been striking pro-U.S. forces. The U.S. said it had targets inside Syria and expected Iranian-backed forces to join the offensive.

Trump slammed Iran for supporting “murderous thugs” in Syria and elsewhere and pledged on Saturday to sever relations between the U.S. and Iran to counter what he says is its “overt hostility and support for terrorism.”

The attack marked a significant escalation in the long conflict between Tehran and the U.S. The two nations have been on opposite sides in the conflict in Syria. The U.S. has repeatedly accused Iran of “direct” and “decisive” support for terrorist groups there, while Iran has repeatedly denied being directly involved.

Iran was already on edge Saturday after the U.S. launched a barrage of cruise missiles on a Syrian air base in response to a chemical weapons attack. The action marked Trump’s most aggressive action against the Iranian-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and heightened tension in the region.

The missile strike came hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned Iran it would pay a “big price” if it attacked U.S. and allied forces in Syria, after the missile strikes sparked a strike by Iran-backed forces in the country.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted just before 8 p.m. local time Saturday that the U.S. strikes had “caused the first direct U.S. aggression against #Iran since 1979.”

The U.S. had earlier told Iran it had a “red line” over Iranian activity in Syria, a senior Iranian official said in a telephone interview with the semi-official Tasnim news agency, the first time Tehran’s top leadership has specifically addressed the incident.

“The U.S. has the right to carry out attacks on any part of Syria’s territory, including in military bases, but we have told the U.S. that they should stay away from Iranian military bases,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The American action is part of a new approach to the region.”

CNN contributed to this report.

By Joshua Partlow, and Carl Zimmer. The editors are “CNN” senior correspondent Jake Tapper and “Slate” reporter Spencer Ackerman.

© 2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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