The Pentagon was forced to go into full public relations mode late last month amid fresh allegations by the Russian General Staff that US instructors were providing training assistance for some 350 ex-Daesh (ISIS) militants at the US Army's al-Tanf garrison in the southern Syrian province of Homs. Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov accused Washington of intending to use the militants to create a so-called 'New Syrian Army', a military formation aimed at further destabilizing the war-torn country after Daesh had been defeated.
A Pentagon spokesperson soon responded, telling Sputnik that Moscow's allegations were "false and absurd," and stressing that the US and its allies engage in capturing and killing Daesh, not training them.
In a special investigative report for Russia's Federal News Agency, embedded Syria correspondents Igor Petrashevich and Roman Martynovich made their way south to try to figure out what was really going on in the US-occupied area with their own eyes.
this is the at tanf border crossing… an important crossing to iraq not mutch more.. the blue pocket are us forces together with thier jihadi buddy's (still) thier mission is fighting isis… as you can see they are surounded by the syrian army… so why are they there? pic.twitter.com/0fnfgfP0vW— serem00 (@Serem001) 6 января 2018 г.
Late last month, General Gerasimov pointed to al-Tanf as being one of two staging areas for the continuation of an armed struggle against the Syrian government by the jihadists, with the other located at Shaddadi camp, under the control of Kurdish forces operating in Syria's north. According to the general, the al-Tanf militants, many former members of Daesh, were brought into the area by US special forces from Deir ez-Zor province, where Daesh had suffered total defeat.
According to Petrashevich and Martynovich, the presence of these former Daesh fighters made local residents wary of helping them to make their way into the US military-administered enclave. "A young man named Marshod warned our correspondents about this and said that two of his own attempts to make his way to a nearby village beyond the line of demarcation led to threats against his life from militants guarding the enclave's inner perimeter."
#SYRIA | #Syrian_army completely besiege the #US_base in #Al_Tanfhttps://t.co/bnH2wxTq89— Alghadeer English (@alghadeertv_eng) 27 декабря 2017 г.
Follow us on #Telegram: https://t.co/Y7LOtsjG2J#Damascus#Moscow#USA#UN#Geneva_Talks#Alghadeertv pic.twitter.com/uCk5oDGcaZ
Undeterred, the journalists continued their investigation via interviews with eyewitnesses and representatives of the Syrian military stationed in the region.
There May Be Close to Four Times as Many Militants as Previously Estimated
Although the Russian military conservatively estimated the presence of roughly 350 Daesh militants at al-Tanf, Syrian military sources speaking to Patrashevich and Martynovich explained that the number may, in fact, be upwards of 1,200 fighters, some 200 of them Daesh jihadis brought to the area by US special forces, mostly from Deir ez-Zor province. Other forces include the so-called 'New Syrian Army', the Forces of Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo (formally part of the Free Syrian Army), and the Martyrs of Islam Brigade (an Islamist group). According to the Syrian military, these forces' armament includes large-caliber mortars, anti-tank missiles, tanks and other heavy weaponry.
The New Syrian Army, commanded by one Mekhenda Talla, reportedly has a strained relationship with the other formations, who cooperate with his forces only on a for cash basis.
"In general, the relationship between the militants from the individual groups is quite tense, as civilian testimony makes clear," Patrashevich and Martynovich wrote. "One local, a man named Amjad Sahim, who managed to escape the US-controlled territory to neighboring Damascus Governate, told us that he and his brothers witnessed clashes between the NSA forces moving toward the border and former Daesh fighters attempting to leave the area into Jordanian territory. As a result of the clashes, the small group of Daesh terrorists was completely wiped out."
Furthermore, the journalists' Syrian Army source said that other members of the US-led coalition were also deployed in the area, with about 400 mercenaries, intelligence operatives and members of the special forces of the UK, France, Jordan, and possibly other countries, operating in the region. These forces' arsenal includes HIMARS multiple launch rocket systems, as well as anti-aircraft artillery, tasked with defending the US base.
'Passive Reserve' of 5,000 More Jihadists
Local freelance journalists told Patrashevich and Martynovich that in addition to the so-called 'active reserve' of militants, the US and its allies also has a passive one.
"While the main jihadists are based at the US Armed Forces base and receive a monthly allowance, another 5,000 Islamists reside at the Rukban refugee camp, some still armed and in contact with their field commanders. Last November, militants began voicing their dissatisfaction with the noticeable decline in US funding. As a result, the al-Tanf base's command, fearing military insurrection, decided to pay out a severance payment of several thousand dollars to each fighter, and gave them the right to remain inside the enclave in the tent camp zone."
Life in Region a Living Hell for Civilians
Speaking to locals, Patrashevich and Martynovich were told that the jihadists' presence in the region has had a severe impact on civilian life. In the town of Al-Qaryatayn, the correspondents met with Farah Alhamsih, a young woman who had lived outside al-Tanf before managing to escape the area once it fell under US and jihadist control.
According to Alhamsih, while some militants engaged in "building homes or carried out shooting practice, most of them, left almost without a livelihood, robbed local houses, or trucks passing along the Damascus-Baghdad highway." According to the eyewitness, while US forces first tried to exert pressure on the radicals or even evict them from the Rukban camp, they eventually gave up, closing their eyes to their criminal activities.
Last fall, a group of some 300 Daesh militants carried out an offensive toward Al-Qaryatayn, successfully avoiding the Syrian Army's hidden outposts using coordinates Moscow and Damascus later alleged were obtained through aerial reconnaissance provided by the US. Although the offensive was stopped, the Syrian military has concerns that new attacks may be in the offing. Furthermore, US and jihadi occupation of the area put important roads, including the Homs-Deir ez-Zor and Damascus-Palmyra highways, as well as strategically important oil and gas fields, under threat.
At Tanf is a strategic point on the Baghdad-Damascus highway. The US wants to block this vital artery between Iraq and Syria: pic.twitter.com/JyMRow0ORr— Ron Black (@TiredOldCat) 7 июня 2017 г.
Russian officials have also voiced concerns about the state of the Rukban refugee camp, the Russian Center for Reconciliation describing the situation there as being close to 'catastrophic,' and the US military closing access to the camp to the UN and other humanitarian organizations. Thus far, Patrashevich and Martynovich recalled, "any attempts by Syrian government convoys or pro-Russian forces to come close to the enclave have been met with airstrikes by the US coalition." This includes incidents in May and June 2017.
"When I was very thirsty, I had to spend a fortune. A bottle of water which could earlier be bought for 50 lira is sold by the terrorists for 500. And people buy it. What else could they do? Many parents tried to save their children. I know several local families who gave away their girls for marriage just to get them out of the area," Sahim recalled.
The eyewitness added that when locals tried to organize to get the attention of US military command about arranging the supply of necessities, their requests fell on deaf ears. This, combined with the lack of any effort to rein in the militants, has given rise to anti-American sentiments, as well as hopes for cooperation with the Syrian government or even representatives of the Russian military.
The Russian Center for Reconciliation has offered to assist refugees from the Rukban camp. Despite the absence of any security guarantees from the US side, and the presence of roaming jihadist militants in the region, last month, Center representatives assisted in the evacuation of a small group of refugees from the camp. The reporters captured the evacuation on video.
For now, Patrashevich and Martynovich noted, the fate of the occupied Syrian enclave is in American hands. So long as the illegal US occupation of the border area continues, Damascus will not be able to rest easy with regard to the security of its southern territories.