WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has reinforced a strategic outpost in southeast Syria in the face of Moscow’s demands it stand down to permit a Russian military maneuver parsed as chasing terrorists.
Officials from U.S. Central Command said the 100 U.S. Marines would be part of a large force about to begin its own exercises using live ammunition near At Tanf, which hugs the southeast border of Iraq. The Pentagon has enforced a 35-mile deconfliction zone around the area, which Russia objects.
“The United States does not seek to fight the Russians, the government of Syria or any groups that may be providing support to Syria in the Syrian civil war,” Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said in a statement. “However, the United States will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend U.S., coalition or partner forces.”
Brown said Moscow used the deconfliction line on Sept. 1 to tell U.S. commanders that they planned to enter the At Tanf deconfliction zone to pursue terrorists. The Russians then sent a written note regarding the plan to make air strikes in the At Tanf zone, Brown said.
He said that the Russians were “advised” to remain out of the 35-mile At Tanf zone and that the U.S. “did not require any assistance to fight ISIS” in that part of Syria, he told the media.
U.S. and Russian forces have already clashed once this year. In February U.S. aircraft — including AC-130 gunships, jets and bombers — killed roughly 300 Russian mercenaries attacking with Syrian government troops against coalition forces near Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria after American special operations forces came under attack. At the time, Russian officials on the deconfliction line said they had no control or connection to those Russian fighters.
The U.S. military exercise centered on the Marines launching a faux air assault in the Syrian desert backed by artillery fire.
The exercise location is roughly 150 miles southwest of where the anti-ISIS, U.S-led coalition has been prepping for a assault on the final ISIS redoubts in what will be phase three of Operation Roundup.
At various times U.S. and coalition commanders have said there are at least 1,000 ISIS fighters remaining in Hajin, Syria, along the Euphrates River, and Abu Kemal, on the border with Iraq. News reports suggest that Phase Three started Monday, but Pentagon officials could not confirm that.