US expands presence in Syrian desert, rebels say

In this Feb. 8, 2017 file photo, US Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend watches during a tour north of Baghdad, Iraq. (File photo: AP)

US troops based in Syria’s southeastern desert have expanded their footprint, rebels there say, increasing the risk of direct ground confrontation between the Americans and Iran-backed pro-government forces.

US special forces have been based since last year at Tanf, a strategic Syrian highway border crossing with Iraq, where the Americans have assisted rebels trying to recapture territory from fleeing ISIS militants

The US-backed Syrian rebels in the area are in competition with pro-government forces who are also trying to recapture territory from ISIS.

On several occasions in recent weeks, warplanes of the US-led coalition have struck pro-government forces to prevent
them advancing, in what Washington has described as self defense.

Abu al-Atheer, military spokesman for the US-backed Maghawir al-Thawra rebel group, told Reuters US forces had spread from their initial location at Tanf to set up a second base at Zakf, around 60-70 km (40-50 miles) to the northeast.

Regional intelligence sources told Reuters the US military moved in the last few days a new long-range rocket launcher system from Jordan to Tanf, for the first time in southern Syria stepping up its presence in the area.

They said the (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) - HIMARS which can fire missiles as far as 300km had been deployed for the first time in southern Syria. They had been previously used to strike militants from positions in Turkey and Jordan.

Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, denied troops had set up a new base. But he said sometimes coalition forces conduct patrols and training with rebels at locations outside Tanf that could be maintained for days or weeks.

“We have that garrison in al-Tanf that is a temporary base and location for us to train our partner forces to fight to defeat ISIS, but that is the only base in southern Syria or location where we have coalition forces,” Dillon said.

Abu al-Atheer said the US special forces were now patrolling distances of up to 100 km from Tanf. He said more US special forces were arriving at both the original base at Tanf and the new base at Zakf, and more weapons had been delivered to rebels.

“The (new) base was being studied for months but now it’s an official base. It has been built and expanded and God willing will be in the next few days like the Tanf base,” he told Reuters.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:50 - GMT 06:50