On May 18, U.S. warplanes launched an airstrike in the area of al-Tanf near Syria’s border with Jordan, reportedly hitting pro-government forces who were setting up fighting positions inside the deconfliction zone in violation of an agreement between the U.S. and Russia. A U.S. army base where special forces are training Syrian militias is located in the area.
“The new U.S. airstrike against Syrian government forces is a continuation of Washington’s destructive line, which began with the provocation in Idlib and an attack on a Syrian airbase in Homs province,” Duma Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Leonid Slutsky told Russia’s TASS state news agency. He added that “such actions speak to the unpredictability of the American partners, which of course, complicates the negotiating process for a Syrian settlement.”
Slutsky accused the U.S. of “playing into the hands” of terrorist groups – namely, Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.
His comments were typical of the reaction by members of Russia’s political establishment to U.S. strikes in Syria.
“The claim by Mr. Slutsky that the U.S. is undermining the forces aligned against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Jabhat Fateh al Sham) is not accurate,” Martin Reardon, senior vice president of the Soufan Group, an American think-tank focused on terrorism analysis, told Polygraph.info.
“The U.S. and its coalition partners have focused on degrading ISIS capabilities for over 2 1/2 years now - both from the air and with special forces units supporting Iraqi military and Syrian rebel ground attacks against them,” Reardon said. “In fact, it is largely due to that support that ISIS has lost so much territory in Iraq and Syria, not to mention thousands of fighters.”
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told the Voice of America that defeating ISIS is “the highest priority” to the United States.
Asked about Slutsky’s comment that “Russia is making enormous efforts to support the reconciliation process in Syria,” the State Department spokesperson referred to a May 15 briefing by Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones. During that briefing, Jones presented a newly declassified report and photos documenting human rights atrocities committed by the Assad regime with “unconditional support from Russia and Iran.”
“The regime must stop all attacks on civilians and opposition forces, and Russia must bear responsibility to ensure regime compliance,” Jones said. “Russia joined the unanimous UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which demands that all parties immediately cease … any attacks against civilians. Russia has either aided in or passively looked away (from), as the regime has conducted an airstrike against a UN convoy, destroyed east Aleppo, and used chemical weapons, including sarin, against civilians in Idlib province on April 4th.”
Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway told VOA that the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the U.S. is reportedly supporting and training, have liberated more than 35 percent of the territory in Syria held by ISIS.
Recently, the Coalition-backed SDF rid the key city of Tabqa of ISIS terrorists, liberating a major population center and returning the Tabqa Dam to the Syrian population. In Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces have liberated more than 90 percent of the land area of Mosul and are closing in on what is left of ISIS resistance in Mosul's Old City.
“U.S. forces have carried out several strikes against al-Qaeda targets in Syria, disrupting that terrorist organization's ability to plan and carry out attacks both within and outside of Syria's borders,” the Pentagon spokesman said.
Reardon noted that hitting Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS) has been “more challenging since they routinely operate with or in close proximity to other rebel forces supported by the coalition.”
Despite these challenges, over 100 members of JFS were killed in a U.S. drone strike on a training camp in Syria last January.
“It is worth mentioning that U.S. efforts against JFS are more of a ‘shadow’ war -- i.e. largely covert, in order to keep public attention on ISIS,” Reardon said.
Pentagon spokesman Rankine-Galloway told VOA that the United States “supports any effort that can genuinely de-escalate the violence in Syria, ensure unhindered humanitarian access, focus energies on the defeat of ISIS and other terrorists, and create the conditions for a credible political resolution of the conflict.”
“The U.S. will continue to target ISIS and al-Qaeda wherever they operate to ensure they have no sanctuary,” he said.