Russia has warned the U.S. that the Russian and Syrian militaries are prepared to launch an offensive on the U.S.-controlled Al-Tanf military base in Syria.

As things in Syria seem poised to heat up dramatically in the coming weeks, CNN has reported that Russia has warned the U.S. that the Russian and Syrian militaries are prepared to launch an offensive on the Al-Tanf military base in Syria, an installation that has been controlled by the U.S. military since 2016.

According to U.S. defense officials who spoke to CNN, Russia has warned the U.S. military twice within the last week alone that its forces, as well as those of the Syrian military, are poised to launch an attack on the base’s “deconfliction zone.” The deconfliction zone is a 34-mile (55-kilometer) radius around the base that the U.S. has unilaterally enforced even though it is not internationally recognized. In the past, the U.S. has attacked the Syrian military and allied forces that have approached the deconfliction zone, which the U.S. later justified as an act of “self-defense.

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Quotes from defense officials included in CNN’s report make it clear that such claims of “self-defense” would likely be used again if the U.S.’ presence in al-Tanf or the deconfliction zone is challenged. One official told CNN that “we have absolutely advised them [Russia] to stay out of al-Tanf. We are postured to respond,” while another stated that “if attacked, the United States will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend U.S., coalition, or partner forces.”

It is these “partner forces” that would be the focus of a future Syrian-Russian military campaign in the area, as the recent warnings from the Russian military regarding a potential future offensive centered around concerns that “militants,” including terrorists, are present throughout the area protected by the U.S. Such charges are not new as, earlier this year, Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Alexander Fomin accused the U.S. of willingly creating a “reserve for terrorists” in the area surrounding al-Tanf.

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However, the U.S. has long maintained that it uses the site to train “partner forces” that are engaged in fighting Daesh (ISIS) terrorists. The name of the rebel militia at the base is Maghaweir Al-Thawra, formerly the New Syrian Army, which is funded and equipped by the CIA and trained by U.S Special Operations Forces for military operations in the Deir Ez-Zor province. That province is largely occupied by the other U.S. military proxy, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Though the U.S.-trained “partner forces” in al-Tanf were originally trained to counter Daesh, this objective has since shifted to one of countering Iran’s military presence within Syria, as Iranian military officials have acted as advisors to the Syrian military over the course of the conflict.

U.S. Strategic Goals Have Shifted From Countering Terrorists to Countering Iran

Another of the admitted objectives of the U.S. presence at al-Tanf is to recapture the strategic border crossing of Abu Kamal, which is under Syrian government control. Were the Syrian government to lose control over Abu Kamal, it would also lose its only road access to both Iraq and Iran. Cutting off this supply line, particularly the connection between Syria and Iran, has long been acknowledged as an important U.S. goal in its occupation of northeastern Syria. Unsurprisingly, areas controlled by the Syrian government within and near Abu Kamal have been targeted by U.S. coalition airstrikes on several occasions in recent months.

In addition, there is considerable evidence backing Russia’s claim that terrorists in the al-Tanf deconfliction zone are taking full advantage of the U.S. military’s protection of the area. For instance, a recent UN report noted that the deconfliction zone around al-Tanf included the Rukban refugee camp, which “[UN Security Council] member states fear might generate new ISIL [Daesh] cells,” given that the camp is known to house Daesh sympathizers and family members. Mainstream media reports in the past have also noted the strong Daesh presence in the camp, while Jordan’s military stated last year that Daesh fighters in and around the camp are equipped with “whole weapons systems … small arms, RPGs, anti-aircraft.”

Despite Daesh’s presence in the area, the U.S. military is now determined to protect the al-Tanf enclave from Syrian and Russian military advances, as noted by the recent CNN report. While protecting terrorists may seem to be at odds with the U.S.’ past policies and statements regarding Syria, the U.S. current policy in the country now seems to favor protecting terrorist groups at al-Tanf and in the Idlib province in order to justify the U.S.’ now “indefinite” mission in Syria aimed at countering not terrorists but Iran.

By Whitney Webb / Creative Commons

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