Last week, a company sized element of U.S. Marines operating out of the Tanf garrison in Syria kicked off a series of “show of force” drills intended to demonstrate in no uncertain terms the extent to which the U.S. military can respond if challenged in the region. A live fire aerial assault was conducted, demonstrating how quickly the Marines could respond to an approaching offensive force, and what level of destruction they promise to deliver — but the intended audience wasn’t Islamic extremists, nor was it even Bashar al Assad’s forces. The Americans were posturing with their eyes set squarely on Moscow, despite the canned nature of the sound bytes coming out of U.S. Central Command.
“Our forces will demonstrate the capability to deploy rapidly, assault a target with integrated air and ground forces, and conduct a rapid exfiltration anywhere in the OIR combined joint operations area,” Navy Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told the media on Friday. “Exercises like this bolster our defeat-ISIS capabilities and ensure we are ready to respond to any threat to our forces.”
Despite the use of ISIS in official statements, these exercises did not come unprompted. Russian officials have issues warnings to U.S. personnel via the Syrian deconfliction line twice in the past week, saying they intend to initiate an offensive against the very region U.S. forces are currently occupying in support of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) at the garrison. U.S. troops not only operate out of the same installation as SDF force at Tanf, they also monitor and enforce a 34 mile (55 kilometer) exclusion zone around the base. The base is considered a key location for ongoing operations in the area, and as such, defenses are always on high alert. However, Russia announcing plans to engage in offensive operations within that exclusion zone insinuates plans to attack the base, or suggests that ISIS targets are operating freely within the area. The former could lead to war between the United States, and the latter seems extremely unlikely.
“The Russians informed the U.S. on Sept 1, via the deconfliction line, that they intended to enter the At Tanf deconfliction zone to pursue terrorists,” Central Command spokesman Army Lt. Col. Earl Brown said on Friday. “The Russians indicated via written note on Sept 6, that they would make precision strikes in the At Tanf deconfliction zone against terrorists. Coalition partners are in the At Tanf deconfliction zone for the fight to destroy ISIS. Any claim that the U.S. is harboring or assisting ISIS is grossly inaccurate.”
While no massing of Russian troops has taken place in the Tanf region, concerns persist that Russia may take a page from the American kinetic option book, using their Kalibr cruise missiles to engage targets without ever placing troops nearby. The Kalibr cruise missile, which first saw use from the Russian military earlier in the Syrian conflict, is widely considered to be a close approximate to the American workhorse Tomahawk cruise missile.
“We have absolutely advised them to stay out of At Tanf,” Brown said. “We are postured to respond. 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,” one unnamed U.S. defense official was quoted as saying in response to the Russian threats. Russia has been the primarily military ally to Bashar al Assad’s Syrian regime since the onset of the civil war in 2011.
If U.S. and Russian forces did square off, it wouldn’t be the first time. Earlier this year, a contingent of Russians launched an offensive against U.S. backed SDF forces in Syria only to be utterly decimated in the ensuing battle, thanks in large part to American special operations troops and air support. The Kremlin, however, claimed the Russians who engaged in the battle where mercenaries with no formal ties to the Kremlin, operating in Syria of their own accord.
It’s unlikely that Russian forces will openly engage U.S. forces, as Russia simply can’t afford to expand their war fighting footprint to a large scale conflict with the United States, let alone the entirety of the NATO alliance. It seems more likely, then, that Russia’s threats of offensive operations near to U.S. forces is meant to bolster their propaganda claims of American support for ISIS in Syria, in hopes of garnering international support for the effort to pressure the United States out of the embattled nation — all but guaranteeing success for Assad in his war against his own people.