A manned U.S. aircraft shot down a pro-Syrian regime drone early Thursday morning after it attacked coalition forces conducting a joint patrol with partner forces near the Tanf garrison in southern Syria, according to Col. Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve.
The attack by the pro-regime drone, which occurred east of Tanf, outside of the 55-kilometer deconfliction zone, resulted in zero coalition casualties and had zero effect on operations, Dillon said. The munition dropped by the "MQ-1-like" drone "hit dirt," he added.
However, its actions represented an unacceptable threat to coalition forces.
"It was clearly meant as an attack," Dillon said. The bomb missed its intended target, but "proximity made it clear who they were trying to hit."
The pro-regime drone was still armed when it was shot down by the U.S. aircraft, which Pentagon officials would not identify.
It was the second strike that day by U.S. forces protecting the small garrison near the Iraq-Syrian border which houses U.S. and U.K. special operators training anti-ISIS fighters. Earlier in the morning, U.S. aircraft struck two technical vehicles — armed pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns — after those vehicles entered the deconfliction zone around Tanf.
The air-to-ground strike and air-to-air engagement constituted the "third set of kinetic strikes" against pro-regime forces threatening the small training facility over the past several weeks. The increasing level of confrontation between U.S. and pro-Syrian regime forces over the Tanf border crossing has worried many analysts who view the route as a strategic land bridge for Iran to connect Tehran to its proxies in Syria and Lebanon.
Officials at the Pentagon have been vague in describing the forces slowly massing outside garrison, describing them mainly as "pro-regime" and "Iranian backed." There is currently a small platoon-size element still static inside the deconfliction zone, which has not moved since coalition airstrikes destroyed a tank, two front-end loaders, another piece of construction equipment and a tactical vehicle on May 18, according to U.S. Central Command officials. U.S. military officials have urged it to vacate the zone through leaflets and via a communication hotline established between the U.S. and Russia to avoid mid-air collisions.
Outside the deconfliction zone is a much larger force, according to Dillion. Both forces, inside and outside the deconfliction zone, include elements of Syrian regime forces, Dillon said.
The Pentagon would not detail the type of drone being operated by pro-regime forces, only describing the aircraft as being similar to the U.S. MQ-1.
On Wednesday, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, issued a warning that it would strike U.S. positions if coalition forces crossed any "redlines" in Syria, according to AP.
According to reports by IHS Janes and Business Insider, Hezbollah operates a drone base in northern Lebanon 10 miles from the borderwith Syria. The approximately 2,200-foot runway is capable of housing the Iranian Ababil-3 and the Shahed-129.
The Ababil-3 is a small reconnaissance drone, while the Iranian Shahed 129 fits the Pentagon’s description odf the type of armed drone that was destroyed. The Shahed drone can carry eight Iranian Sadid missiles. The Shahed 129 is also known to operate in southern Syria where the Tanf garrison is located, according to officials at U.S. Central Command.
The security situation at Tanf continues to deteriorate as U.S., coalition, Syrian and Iranian-backed forces jockey for terrain in a post-ISIS Syria. Meanwhile, Kurdish militants allied with the U.S. launched an operation to liberate ISIS' de facto capital, Raqqa, on June 6.
The U.S. "doesn’t want a fight with pro-regime forces," Dillon said. But the coalition will do everything in its power to defend itself. "Our focus is on fighting ISIS."
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.