Washington is once again concerned about Syrian government expansion inside... wait for it... Syria.
The United States threatened to take "firm and appropriate measures" against Syrian government forces, claiming repeat "ceasefire violations" and concerned over reports that the Syrian Army may be poised for a new military operation to retake Deraa in the country's south.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said late Friday, “As a guarantor of this de-escalation area with Russia and Jordan, the United States will take firm and appropriate measures in response to Assad regime violations.”
Nauert referenced the thus far tenuously-holding deal between the US, Russia, and Jordan struck last November which among other stipulations proposed efforts for "the reduction, and ultimate elimination of foreign forces and foreign fighters from the area to ensure a more sustainable peace." This was widely interpreted at the time as calling for an "Iran-free" zone in southern Syria, as Israel has long threatened to go to war should Iranian troops be present near its border.
The State Department warnings come at the end of a week in which Syrian state media claimed US fighter jets attacked Syrian Army positions in the eastern desert near the Iraq border overnight Wednesday, which reportedly killed 12 pro-government fighters.
The US, however, has denied any involvement: "We have no operational reporting of a U.S.-led coalition strike against pro-Syrian regime targets or forces," CENTCOM spokesman Captain Bill Urban said in a statement. And a separate Pentagon spokesman said, "These reports are false, the coalition did not strike any Syrian army positions in eastern Syria."
And less than 24 hours later, another airstrike on a base in central Syria is widely reported to have involved Israel, believed to have targeted a Hezbollah weapons depot.
Notably, a Reuters report acknowledges the US warning issued late Friday comes as 1) Syrian government forces have cleaned out the last ISIS pockets in the country's south; and 2) Damascus is now "in its strongest position since the early months of the war in 2011". Reuters notes further that the government has "recaptured all remaining insurgent areas near Damascus in recent weeks, including the densely populated eastern Ghouta area, as well as big enclaves in central Syria."
So essentially while warning against "Assad regime violations" and expansion, the State Department is reasserting the US position that Syria cannot "expand" within its own sovereign borders (borders obviously long recognized internationally and by the United Nations).
The Syrian Army is making preparations to move deeper into the southern province of Deraa where fighting began during the opening months the war starting in 2011. Syrian state media has reported that government planes are dropping leaflets over towns in the region, warning anti-Assad forces that they must disarm or face military attack.
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Meanwhile, the New York Times has published what purports to be a detailed account of a February 7th major clash between pro-government forces and Russian allies and pro-US forces, which we explained at the time was cause for "an acute international crisis” as it left up to hundreds on the pro-government and Russian side dead, and may have controversially included Russian mercenaries.
The NYT description of what took place paints a glowing picture of US special forces successfully holding off a massive assault by hundreds of pro-government fighters, based on multiple interviews and documents given to the Times. Business Insider summarizes the NYT revelation as follows :
- Roughly 40 US commandos held off about 500 forces loyal to the Syrian government — including Russian mercenaries — in an intense firefight in early February, The New York Times reports.
- No US troops were harmed, but hundreds of pro-government forces were killed, according to The Times.
- The firefight took place at an outpost next to a Conoco gas station in eastern Syria on February 7.
The New York Times sources described the outcome as follows:
In the end, 200 to 300 of the attacking fighters were killed. The others retreated under merciless airstrikes from the United States, returning later to retrieve their battlefield dead. None of the Americans at the small outpost in eastern Syria — about 40 by the end of the firefight — were harmed.
The firefight was described by the Pentagon as an act of self-defense against a unit of pro-Syrian government forces. In interviews, United States military officials said they had watched — with dread — hundreds of approaching rival troops, vehicles and artillery pieces in the week leading up to the attack.
If both this week's reported foreign air assaults and last month's massive US coalition strikes on Damascus are any indication, such direct clashes between Syria and the US forces will likely occur again. The only question that remains is the degree to which things will escalate in any future confrontation as the stakes are now even higher with Damascus feeling itself in a more comfortable security position compared to last year, and has a new confidence to respond militarily.