BEIRUT — Damascus and Washington traded public jabs after warplanes from both countries carried out independent and lethal air raids this week on a city in eastern Syria that is under the control of the Islamic State.
Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, lashed out at the United States late Thursday, calling allegations of deliberate attacks on civilians by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime a “fabrication.”
That criticism was expressed in a statement a day earlier by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who was “horrified” by Syrian regime bombardments on Tuesday that killed dozens of people, many of them civilians, in the city of ar-Raqqa.
“The Assad regime’s continued slaughter of Syrian civilians further exposes its callous disregard for human life,” she said.
The Syrian city is the self-declared capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, and it has been targeted repeatedly with airstrikes — including on Sunday — by a U.S.-led coalition against the militant group.
The harsh exchange highlights the awkward confluence of interests between Damascus and Washington in fighting the Islamist group as the Assad regime battles American-backed rebels in a civil war that has killed some 200,000 people.
In comments published by the Syrian state news agency, SANA, al-Zoubi responded to Psaki’s remarks by saying that the United States should not direct “fabricated accusations towards the Syrian state.” He said it should instead show “respect for the souls of American victims” of the Islamic State, in an apparent reference to the militant group’s beheading of at least three American citizens.
“The Syrian Arab Army does not target civilians and will not do so,” al-Zoubi added.
The Obama administration appears to have softened its opposition to Assad as it steers the international coalition, which began launching air raids in September against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
While the coalition also plans to train Assad’s so-called moderate opposition, many say its airstrikes have aided Syrian government forces, which have struggled to put down the nearly four-year-old rebellion.
American warplanes bombed the outskirts of ar-Raqqa on Sunday, and the regime attacks that followed on Tuesday were part of an attempt to capitalize on the anti-Islamic State sympathies espoused by the U.S.-led coalition, said Imad Salamey, professor of international relations at the Beirut-based Lebanese American University.
“This is all quite awkward for Washington,” he said. “It definitely seems like the Syrian regime has craftily manipulated the coalition agenda to help its own agenda.”
He and others point to the dramatically escalated air raids across the country that the regime has carried out since the coalition bombing began.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday that intensified air raids by the Assad regime were worthy of award. In a statement filled with dark humor, the war-monitoring group called to put the Syrian regime in the “Guinness World Records, after about 2000 air strikes in 40 days, and killing and wounding about 2500 people.”
It said those strikes had been carried out in locations across the country, killing 527 civilians, including 120 children and 90 women. It added that 1,500 people had been wounded in those attacks.
Since the Islamic State took control of ar-Raqqa in January, regime attacks on the city have killed 307 people, including 31 children and 38 women, according to statistics by the Syrian Network for Human Rights.