Rare military exercises with US marines in southern Syria sent a strong message to Russia and Iran that Americans and rebels intend to stay and confront any threats to their presence a Syrian rebel commander said.
Colonel Muhanad al Talaa, commander of the Pentagon-backed Maghawir al Thawra group, told Reuters eight days of drills that ended this week at the US military outpost in Tanf were the first exercises with live-fire air and ground assault, involving US troops and rebel fighters.
“These exercises have a big importance and beefed up defences of the area, raised combat capabilities and morale as well as that of civilians in the area,” Talaa told Reuters.
A US military spokesman said the exercises were a show of force and the Pentagon notified Moscow through “deconfliction” channels to prevent “miscommunication or escalate tension”.
“The exercise was conducted to reinforce our capabilities and ensure we are ready to respond to any threat to our forces within our area of operations'” Colonel Sean Ryan said in an email response to questions.
Russia and the Syrian government have repeatedly called on Washington to pull out troops from Tanf base, where it declared a 55 km radius “deconfliction zone” off-limits.
Rebels say hundreds of US marines arrived this in Tanf month to join special operations troops already in the garrison and participate in drills, amid heightened US-Russian tensions in Syria and a naval build-up in the Mediterranean.
The “deconfliction zone” is a safe haven for at least 50,000 civilians living in the Rukban camp inside it. Russia’s defence ministry repeated an accusation that Washington is harbouring Islamic State militants in the zone.
“We are staying whether the Russians or Iranians want or not,” the rebel commander added.
The outpost, surrounded by desert, was established during battles against Islamic State militants who used to control eastern Syria bordering Iraq.
After Islamic State were driven out, US-led coalition warplanes struck Iranian-backed militias on several occasions to prevent them advancing, in what Washington described as self-defence.
Tanf is on the strategic Damascus-Baghdad highway, once a major supply route for Iranian weapons into Syria.
This makes the base a bulwark against Iran and part of a larger campaign against Iran’s military expansion in the Middle East.
Control of the area has long been a goal of the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.
Rebels say the US military’s new policy to bolster Tanf capabilities is a big shift.
“The American position changed completely towards the Iranians. Before it was just putting a line to the Iranians not to approach the area,” Talaa added.
Tehran’s failure to end its military presence in Syria could provoke a US military response, Talaa added.
“If Tehran does not respond to the American demands there is a possibility they will be hit. It’s inevitable the Iranians leave Syria. This should happen quickly and in a decisive way,” he added.