Putin’s threat to attack US troops
MOSCOW has threatened the US with direct assaults on its troops in Syria as it prepares to assist President Assad in his final push to defeat pro-democracy rebels in that country.
Pro-Assad Syrian troops, supported by Iranian and Russian forces, have begun their assault on the last rebel stronghold, the province of Idlib.
But as the battle unfolds, Russia has cast its eyes to the Iraq-Jordan-Syria border region where dozens of US troops are located in well established fortifications built to help train the locals resist Islamic State - and the forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accuses the United States of 'protecting' terrorist forces sharing the facilities at At Tanf, less than 20km from the Jordanian border. A 55km exclusion zone has been in operation around the base for several years, enforced by US navy and air force combat jets.
Now Kremlin officials say their presence will no long prevent Russian forces from attacking the rebels there. But Pentagon officials show little sign of ceding their bastion of military and political influence in the deeply troubled region.
US Central Command's Lieutenant Colonel Early Brown said that Moscow had declared via a Syrian hotline "that they intended to enter the At Tanf deconfliction zone to pursue terrorists."
A letter sent to the commander of US Forces in Syria, Lieutenant General Paul Funk II, warned of 'precision strikes' being planned against 'Islamic State' fighters adjacent At Tanf.
The Pentagon has responded by deploying an additional 100 US Marines to the At Tanf outpost via helicopter on Saturday.
It has also bluntly warned Moscow and Damascus to 'back off'.
His comments came after other, unnamed, US defence officials warned against any hostile acts from Syrian, Russian or Iranian forces.
"The United States does not seek to fight the government of Syria or any groups that may be providing it support. However, if attacked, the United States will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend US, coalition or partner forces," a defence official told CNN.
"We have absolutely advised them to stay out of At Tanf … We are postured to respond," another reportedly added.
US Central Command says the Marines freshly deployed to At Tanf will conduct a 'multiday exercise' using live ammunition.
"Our forces will demonstrate the capability to deploy rapidly, assault a target with integrated air and ground forces and conduct rapid exfiltration," said Captain William Urban, the chief Central Command spokesman.
But the US hasn't been the only nation to strengthen its presence in the region.
Moscow as sent the largest naval force since the fall of the Soviet Union to the Eastern Mediterranean. It is currently undertaking military manoeuvres in conjunction with combat aircraft based at its Khmeimim air base in western Syria.
The 'exercises' began on September 1 and was due to end this weekend.
It involves 25 warships and 30 aircraft, ranging from the missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov to several Tu-160 'White Swan' cruise-missile carrying strategic bombers.
THREAT AND COUNTER-THREAT
Moscow's threat to attack the At Tanf base comes as the US, France and Britain continue to reiterate warnings that any use of chemical weapons will result in a similar cruise missile barrage to that unleashed in April of this year, and in April 2017.
Russia, which had openly warned of taking direct action in response to that attack, chose at the time to remain silent.
Now, it may be telegraphing its intent to overtly strike the US base in retaliation for any Coalition action against Assad.
Moscow is now in a much better position to do so.
But the resolve of the Pentagon to defend its troops has already been demonstrated.
US troops and aircraft operating in the region have rules-of-engagement that allow them to respond immediately with military action if directly attacked, without the need to seek permission from Washington.
Details remain controversial, but it appears up to 200 Russian troops were killed and injured in an assault on a similar US-manned training near Deir al-Zor on the Euphrates River earlier this year.
Syrian government forces, backed by what were described as Russian 'mercenaries' operating for the Wagner 'security services' company, opened fire after crossing the Euphrates River operational demarcation line between the US and Moscow. They claimed they were assaulting Islamic State forces.
But the US troops based at the facility called in artillery and gunship support.
The Russian government denied any role in the attack.
WALKING THE 'RED LINE'
Tensions are rising amid an opening assault against the final Syrian rebel bastion of Idlip.
Russian warplanes have been carrying out intense air strikes in the northwestern district, pounding rebel-held towns and positions in preparation for a ground assault.
Earlier this month, Moscow strangely issued a warning that the Syrian 'White Hat' rescue service was planning a 'false flag' chemical attack on its own people in order to incite international outrage.
Despite preferring what appeared to be intimate knowledge of the attack plans, neither Kremlin or Assad forces have moved to prevent such a war crime unfolding.
Such a claim has been used in the past in an effort to divert blame from Syrian government forces using banned chemical weapons against civilians living in the rebel-occupied towns of Khan Shaykhun and Douma.
The US has dismissed the new claims out-of-hand, warning President Assad that if he
"chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its Allies will respond swiftly and appropriately."
"The United States is closely monitoring the situation in Idlib province, Syria, where millions of innocent civilians are under threat of an imminent Assad regime attack, backed by Russia and Iran," the White House said in a statement. "Let us be clear, it remains our firm stance that if President Bashar Al Assad chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its Allies will respond swiftly and appropriately.
"President Trump has warned that such an attack would be a reckless escalation of an already tragic conflict and would risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,"
At Tanf has been attacked by the Russians before. In 2016, an unknown number of US-backed rebel fighters were killed in a surprise air strike by Russian combat aircraft.
US Navy F/A-18 Hornets moved to intercept the Russian jets, visually identifying them as they departed. Attempts to contact them was met with no response.
Attempts to contact Russian officials by using a 'de-confliction hotline' established to avoid 'misunderstandings' when forces from both nations are operating in the same area was also met with silence.
Later, when the Hornets withdrew a short distance to refuel from orbiting tankers, Russian combat aircraft swept in and bombed the base once again.
In response, the Pentagon deployed additional troops and equipment to defend the facility.
But, in 2017, pro-Assad forces launched a ground assault near At Tanf with the support of Iranian forces. But the US-backed rebels, using their own tanks and artillery, was able to defeat the assault with the assistance of US F-15 Eagle fighters shooting down two Iranian drones surveilling the site.
The At Tanf bastion is a serious impediment to President Assad's attempts to assert control over the south of his strife-torn nation. US and Jordanian military 'advisers' and supporting personnel have been teaching Syrian rebels - specifically those belonging to the Maghawir al-Thawra group - combat tactics.
It's not the first time Moscow has used the claim that the US is harbouring Islamic State forces, or members of what it calls 'terrorist' organisations (the US calls them pro-democracy rebels).
In recent weeks, it has again issued accusations that the US and Jordan are protecting 'terrorists' operating out of the Rukban refugees camp on the Jordanian-Syrian border.
"Several hundred (Islamic State) militants, as well as (al-Qaida-backed) al-Nusra militants, possessing heavy weaponry, are hiding among civilians who are being held hostage, and are being used as human shields," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said late last month. "Unfortunately, all this happens, and we have information confirming this, with the knowledge of the US military who control the 55-kilometer zone around their illegal base in Al-Tanf on the Syrian territory."
He provided no evidence to back his claims.