US military: “We are prepared for any threat that is presented by the pro-regime forces”
The US military said on Thursday that it bolstered its “combat power” in eastern Syria, looking to avert a showdown with pro-Assad forces advancing in the sparsely-populated Badia region.
A Baghdad-based spokesman for the US-led coalition, Colonel Ryan Dillon, said, “We have increased our presence and our footprint and prepared for any threat that is presented by the pro-regime forces.”
However, it remained unclear what action the US will take in support of the Free Syrian Army, apart from maintenance of a 55-km (34-mile) exclusion zone around the Tanf base, with US special forces as well as FSA units, near the Iraq border.
Two weeks ago the US carried out its first airstrikes on pro-Assad forces, including Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, when they moved inside the zone with equipment and personnel to establish a forward position. Subsequently, the US dropped 90,000 leaflets warning fighters that any movement toward Tanf “will be seen as hostile intent and we will defend our forces”: “You are within an established deconfliction zone, leave the area immediately.”
But the pro-Assad offensive, which has taken about 1,100 square km as the Islamic State withdrew from the desert, has continued to mass forces just outside the zone. Warplanes — it is unclear whether piloted by Russian or regime personnel — have carried out strikes to deter any FSA attack.
The US has demanded that the FSA attack only the Islamic State and not confront the pro-Assad units. However, Washington is increasingly concerned that the advance of the regime and its allies will open up a land route along the Baghdad-to-Damascus highway for Iranian arms supply into Syria.
Iran has used aircraft to prop up the regime military since 2011.
Dillon said on Thursday that a small number of Iran-backed forces remain inside the exclusion zone around Tanf. Speaking of the larger force just outside the 55-km limit, he said, “We see that as a threat”.
Report: US, Russia Hold Secret Meeting Over “De-Escalation Zone” in South
US and Russian officials, as well as Jordanian counterparts, reportedly met in Jordan in late May to discuss a “de-escalation zone” in southern Syria.
A “former diplomat from the region” said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in charge of dealing with Russia, with Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State, and US Syria envoy Michael Ratney participating in the Jordan talks.
The source said, with a priority “to stop the killing”, the Trump Administration “are willing to watch what Russia is doing[.] They are willing to give Russia a major role to play … to find a solution … in a way that Assad, in the endgame, should be out, and Iran should be out”.
A “senior diplomat” confirmed that the US and Russian officials “met more than once” in “rather serious discussions”. However, he noted the growing tension in the east between US-supported rebels and pro-Assad forces: “At the same time [they are] trying to increase their bargaining power through moves on the ground [to see] who has the upper hand in the Euphrates Valley.”
Vladimir Putin may also have alluded to the talks in an interview with France’s Le Figaro, published this week:
We are now considering how the interests of all the countries to the south of Syria can be best served, with consideration for the concerns of all the countries that face issues in this region. I am referring to Jordan, Israel and Syria itself.
TOP PHOTO: Free Syrian Army and US fighters at the Tanf crossing on the Syria-Iraq border, May 2017
The Destruction of Lataminah in Northern Hama
A resident of the town of Lataminah in northern Hama Province have described the extent of damage by years of pro-Assad bombardment.
The town was subjected to mass killings in 2012 and regular bombing since then, with an escalation of attacks in recent months. The local council has declared a disaster area, in which about 3,000 people still live without water, electricity, or bakeries
Alaa Mahmoud, a local activist, said 85% of al-Lataminah has been damaged including all service centers, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. He said 668 people have been killed and about 2000 injured, with more than 100 amputees.
Regime helicopters knocked the only functioning hospital, built in a cave in 2014, out of service in March. Despite Russia’s declaration of a “de-escalation zone” last month, pro-Assad forces have continued bombardment, trying to burn the crops that provide much of Latamineh’s food.