Moscow is maneuvering for another stab at edging the Americans out of its strategic Al-Tanf outpost in eastern Syria. For three weeks, Russia propagandists tried hard to plant the impression that the US and Israel had agreed to be satisfied with the removal of Iran and its allies from southern Syria. Moscow’s strategy was to obtain the Al Tanf evacuation in the name of “reciprocity.” But that plan did not work.
The new strategy is based on an international media campaign pretending that the Trump administration’s consent to evacuate the outpost is already in the bag. For Moscow, the US presence in Al-Tanf, which lies athwart Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan, is a major nuisance; it blocks Russia’s plan to open up this corner of eastern Syria for the Syrian army to move in and evict the Syrian rebel militias holding Syria’s southern borders with Jordan and Israel in the Daraa and Quneitra regions.
The US base, moreove, controls a 34-mile zone where its forces have been training Syrian opposition forces since 2016.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem put in his oar on Saturday, June 2 when he said the US military presence is illegal and should leave. “You should not believe the statements made about the agreement on Syria’s south, so long as the US forces have not withdrawn from al-Tanf,” he said, directly linking any talks on the future of rebel-held southern region with the departure of US from this high-value outpost – the very deal Moscow had tried pushing in the first place, without result
Russian, Syrian and Iranian sources then accused the US of expanding the Tanf base “as Syrian government forces massed troops for the final battle to recover Daraa province.” Russia released satellite images which claimed to depict, “Several buildings and barricades added to the US base in the last few weeks, as well as additional heavy military equipment and 30 technical vehicles.”
This was another Russian, Syrian and Iranian ploy for planting the impression that the US had agreed to hand over the Al Tanf base to Syrian forces “under threat of the momentarily-expected Daraa offensive,” in return for a “Russian guarantee that the Syrian army would refrain from attacking US-backed forces in eastern Syria.”
If that spate of false reports was contrived to pressure the Americans into abandoning Al-Tanf, it failed in its object. DEBKA Weekly sources report that John Bolton called a White House national security council meeting which decided on a tough, four-point response:
- The Trump administration firmly opposes any arrangement for southern Syria -certainly not with the Assad regime or Iran – with regard to the US presence in Al Tanf or any southern Syrian region abutting the Jordanian and Israeli borders. The only deal the US is willing to consider is expansion of the understanding reached between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin on July 18, 2017 on the sidelines of the G-7 summit. They agreed there to establish two de-escalation zones in southern Syria.
- Since the false reports were found to emanate from one source, Moscow, Washington decided to contact that source directly with the unambiguous message that the United States has no intention of withdrawing from Al Tanf or making any concessions on its presence there.
- This US position applies equally to all areas east of the Euphrates River. The Trump administration insists on Moscow standing by the deal concluded by Presidents Barack Obama and Putin three years ago regarding the division of Russian and US areas of influence in Syria.
- The NSC is convinced that American influence in northern, eastern and southern Syria should be anchored on two elements:
(a) A US-Turkish deal clearly apportioning military-held areas in northern Syria to avoid clashes. On Monday, June 4, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accordingly came to an agreement on a plan for Kurdish fighters (called by Turkey terrorists) to withdraw from the northern Syrian town of Manbij. (See separate article with details.)
(b) The Pentagon will go forward with its efforts to muster a local army, that is built around Syrian opposition fighters recruited from the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Kurdish militias, for the task of blocking attempts by Iran, Syria or Hizballah to seize territory in the north, east or south. This army would consist of an estimated 80,000-100,000 combatants.