GAZIANTEP, Turkey – It's called Area 55: a 55 square kilometer zone that includes the main highway between Damascus and Baghdad. The barren land that lies near a tri-border area where Syria, Iraq and Jordan meet has increasingly become a source of tensions between Moscow and Washington.
A US-backed Syrian-Arab rebel group controls the desert route far southeastern Syria, working with American and British troops on a base near the city of Al-Tanf, but few understand exactly why. US officials say the position should protect against the possible resurgence of ISIS. But the rebels, several thousand, say they are there to stop Iran from moving materials and personnel back and forth between Iraq and Syria. Al-Tanf happens to be directly between Baghdad and Damascus, both heavily influenced by Tehran.
"The Free Syrian Army is working with the US and Britain in the desert along the Iraqi-Syrian border," said Ibrahim. Idlibi, an adviser to the Syrian rebels, who are fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian-backed allies, including the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shiites. "The purpose is to stop the Iranians and Hezbollah in order to prune the road between Damascus and Baghdad."
"If any militias enter this place," they draw a map on a piece of paper, "they will die."
With the ISIS war in Syria apparently waning, the al-Tanf outpost is a growing source of confusion over US intentions in Syria, where the Pentagon has deployed some 2,000 troops. President Donald Trump said on Thursday that the US would leave Syria "very soon", but other senior Washington officials have said America has long-term interests that it seeks to secure in the country. Two US soldiers were killed Thursday in Syria by an improvised explosive device and five injured, the military said. The incident allegedly occurred near Manbij near the Turkish border.
Moscow has repeatedly stated that it considers the US base in Al-Tanf an important thorn in the side. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Sakharova said Area 55 on February 1
I also wonder why humanitarian organizations are unable to secure the vast territory of the US-controlled al-Tanf community in Afghanistan Visiting southern Syria and the local Rukban refugee camp, "the Foreign Minister said." The US has unilaterally taken control of the area. We have ensured that the Syrian government supports this approach, and now humanitarian organizations need to go there. "
Last month, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov described the displaced Syrians in Rukban as" hostages "of the rebel factions.19659002] US forces have been underway for more than two years, possibly since the beginning of the ISIS war in 2014, what the Pentagon calls a "garrison" in a "Provisional Coalition to Train Certified Forces to Force IS." 19659002] "It's a relatively routine occurrence of fighting ISIS fighters moving through the area To move around al-Tanf, where coalition-backed partner forces operate. "By the British Army Major General Felix Gedney, deputy commander of the anti-terrorism unit, the ISIS coalition, told reporters in December.
The area first came in In June, after a confrontation between US forces and pro-regime militia in mind, military planes destroyed a convoy of preparatory regimef and fired a drone allegedly to shoot at Syrian rebels in al-Tanf, but insisted that the actions were in self-defense.
"The coalition's mission is to defeat ISIS Iraq and Syria," a statement issued by the US forces on 8 June said. "The coalition is not trying to fight the Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces have teamed with them."
But the Syrian rebels say their mission has other goals: "The goal of our presence is to stop the Shiites' progress, cut off the Baghdad Damascus Strait and protect the displaced in a camp run by Deir Ez-Zour came after the regime took control of their territories, "said Mohannad al-Talaa, the commander of the Revolutionary Command Army, which is the bulk of the fighters of the Free Syrian Army in the region.
Talaa said his No. 4500 fighter was trained in Jordan and received salaries, weapons and vehicles from the US-led coalition.
The men are mostly waiting for time. Although ISIS is nearby and may regroup, al-Tanf is surrounded by regime checkpoints that prevent Talaas men from fighting them. They fought against ISIS more than two months ago, killing 16 fighters and capturing 17. The area received supplies and maintained links with Ghouta, the rebel region east of Damascus, which will fall prey to regime forces and leave al-Tanf behind
In addition to the confusion, many say that Iranian allies are rapidly plowing through Area 55 could plow through the desert. Syria experts not only flew out of Iran, but also found that Iranian-backed Iraqi militias have already established a highway north of al-Tanf, which they use to get to and from Damascus.
"It's easy to find another way because it's flatland," said Jawad Abu Hatab, prime minister of the Syrian opposition government in exile. He noted that Iran or Iranian troops control a phosphate factory west of al-Tanf, providing them with a simple station on the road between Damascus and Baghdad.
The US relies mainly on Kurdish-led troops to relieve the Syrian Democratic forces against ISIS, but Talaa speculated that the Americans held them in al-Tanf to hedge their bets while various forces were fighting for position in Syria.
"In the future, Americans must support the Free Syrian Army in the face of the Shiite wave," Talaa said. "Because your Kurdish ally will not fulfill this task if asked in the future."