Pentagon: Russia ‘very helpful’ in calming tense situation in southern Syria

Pentagon: Russia ‘very helpful’ in calming tense situation in southern Syria

By Loree Lewis   
A scene from the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The U.S. maintains a de-confliction communications channel with Russia at the center. (Staff Sgt. R. Alex Durbin/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON – The Defense Department said Friday that Russia has been “very helpful” in working to cool tensions in southern Syria between the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition and pro-Syrian government forces, and repeated that the coalition reserves the right to respond with force if it feels threatened.

On Thursday the U.S. shot down a pro-Syrian government drone that had dropped a “dud” bomb near the coalition and its partnered forces and also bombed pro-government forces on the ground who had entered a protected zone near the Jordanian border with armed vehicles.

Defense Department spokesperson Capt. Jeff Davis did not say who might have operated the drone, but said that it was a high- end system. “We do know that Iran, obviously, and its support of the regime provides them with equipment. They provide them with assistance, with support, with funding … At the very least it’s evidence of Iran’s influence there,” he said of the drone.

The coalition is training anti-ISIS rebels in the area around the city of At-Tanaf. According to the U.S., the 34-mile zone is an agreed-upon “deconfliction zone” with the Russians, who are allied to the Syrian government. The At-Tanaf region has seen a surge in Iranian-backed troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“I think if you compare today to yesterday, we’ve seen a marked sense of quiet move over this situation,” Davis told reporters at the Pentagon. He said Russia has “very helpful to us in being the bridge of communications” to the pro-government forces.

“They are trying to get the other parties, the pro-regime, the Iranian-backed militias to do the right thing and to prevent them from taking actions that are destabilizing,” he said.

Davis said the U.S. and Russia have communicated over the past several days both over an established deconfliction line and at senior military levels.

The hostility Thursday marked the third and fourth times that coalition forces have faced off against pro-government forces in the area over the past three weeks.

On Tuesday the U.S. bombed pro-regime forces after they entered the area with a tank, artillery, anti-aircraft weapons, armed technical vehicles and more than 60 soldiers, and did not heed warnings to leave the area. On May 18 the U.S. bombed what was described as pro-Syrian government and Iranian-backed forces after they appeared to establish a firebase for artillery units inside the protected zone.

Davis said Friday that the U.S. “acted in self defense and if it happens again we’ll act again.” However, he maintained that the coalition’s strategy is to not take any further action unless threatened.

“We’re not looking to start a fight with anybody other than ISIS,” he said. “We are acting in self defense. We have done it four times. We hope not to do it again.”

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