Hundreds of US soldiers and Syrian rebel fighters on Thursday wrapped up a week-long military exercise, with an anti-regime commander claiming the US could hit Iranian forces in the country in a bid to force them out, Reuters reported.
The drill, held at the American-held Al-Tanf base in southern Syria, involved live-fire as well as air and ground assaults, the report said. The exercise was confirmed by an army spokesman.
The Al-Tanf base, set up in 2016 near the nation’s borders with Iraq and Jordan, has been used for the training of so-called “vetted opposition” to the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Colonel Muhanad al-Talaa, commander of Pentagon-backed rebel group Maghawir al-Thawra, spoke with Reuters by telephone and said the drill sent a message to Russia and Iran that the American and opposition forces weren’t going anywhere.
“These exercises have a big importance and have beefed up the defenses of the area and raised the combat capabilities and morale and that of civilians in the area,” Talaa said.
“We are staying whether the Russians or Iranians want or not,” he added.
Talaa assessed that the US was prepared to take offensive action in order to clear Syria of Iranian forces and Iran-backed militias. Iran, along with Russia, has been providing military support for the Syrian regime against the rebels and have played a key role in restoring Damscus’s control over most of the country.
“The American position has changed completely toward the Iranians,” Talaa told Reuters. “Before it was just putting a line to the Iranians not to approach the areas. If Tehran does not respond to the demands of the Americans there is a big likelihood they will be hit. It’s inevitable the Iranians leave Syria. This should happen quickly and in a decisive way.”
US military spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan told Reuters via email that “the exercise was conducted to reinforce our capabilities and ensure we are ready to respond to any threat to our forces within our area of operations.”
Syria and its ally Russia have both told the US to pull out of the Al-Tanf base. The US has declared a “deconfliction zone” in a 55-kilometer radius around the base. Reuters reported there are some 50,000 civilians living in the Rukban camp within the zone.
Beyond the battle against IS jihadists in their nearby desert hideouts, analysts say Washington wants the base to disrupt Iranian efforts to open an east-west land corridor from Tehran to Lebanon.
The base sits on the Damascus-Baghdad highway, a strategic road that has in the past been used to bring Iranian weapons into Syria.
Al-Tanf is seen as a potential flashpoint between US and Iranian or Tehran-backed forces.
Last week an Iranian convoy passing near to the base was hit in an airstrike killing at least eight pro-government fighters according to a monitoring group. At least 11 people were wounded in the attack, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which could not confirm the strike had been conducted by the US-led coalition present in the region.
Several strikes against Syrian government or allied forces have in the past been attributed to US forces, which were deployed with the declared goal of fighting the Islamic State (IS) group.
Israel, too, has carried out strikes against forces allied with Iran, in a stated effort to prevent the Islamic Republic from entrenching itself near its border.