“According to credible data received by the Foreign Intelligence Service [SVR]…the US military is actively recruiting militants from jihadist groups affiliated with Daesh* and al-Qaeda* to carry out terrorist attacks in Russia and Commonwealth of Independent States countries. Particular attention is being paid to attracting people from the Russian North Caucasus and Central Asia,” the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service said in a press statement Monday.
According to the intel service, 60 terrorists “with experience participating in hostilities in the Middle East” were recruited in January, and “are currently undergoing accelerated training at the American base at al-Tanf, Syria,” studying the manufacture and use of improvised explosive devices, sabotage and subversive activities, and how to stage attacks on protected facilities, including diplomatic missions.
“In the near future, it is planned to transfer militants in small groups to Russia and CIS countries, where they will be tasked with preparing and carrying out terrorist attacks against diplomats, civil servants, law enforcement and military personnel,” the SVR indicated.
Russian intelligence has brought up al-Tanf repeatedly over the course of the past year in relation to the US and NATO’s ongoing proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. Last March, the SVR said groups of Middle Eastern fighters transferred to Ukraine and curated by US and British handlers had been trained at al-Tanf. A US vet who volunteered to fight for Ukraine but escaped the country after witnessing war crimes confirmed encountering Arabic-speaking fighters in the conflict zone.
Al-Tanf came up again in an SVR briefing last May in a report on the US training of militants from Transcaucasia and Central Asia on the use of anti-tank missiles, reconnaissance and strike drones, and advanced communications and surveillance equipment.
Last June, anonymous officials told US media that Russian forces had staged an attack on the al-Tanf garrison. The Russian military confirmed in August that its forces had carried out strikes against the mountain bases of jihadists supplied and trained at al-Tanf “by instructors from the US Army Special Operations Forces.” The facility has also been subjected to repeated drone and rocket strikes in recent years. In August, after a rocket strike left American servicemen at the base with “minor injuries,” US President Joe Biden ordered airstrikes against weapons storage sites in Deir ez-Zor province.
The US al-Tanf garrison is situated in Homs governorate, southern Syria along the border with Iraq and Jordan on the strategic M2 Baghdad-Damascus Highway, about 250 km east of the Syrian capital.
US forces took control of the region in early 2016, turning the area around the settlement into a major military base. The Pentagon claims its activities at al-Tanf are limited to training “rebel forces” and preventing the “resurgence” of Daesh. However, Syrian, Iranian, and Russian officials have accused Washington of training and cooperating with so-called “ex-jihadists,” including Daesh remnants, to wage war on the Syrian government.
The US military maintains a 55-kilometer “deconfliction zone” perimeter around the base, and threatens to target any non-allied forces who approach the base with overwhelming force. The US proved it meant business in May 2017, when it attacked a Syrian military convoy engaged in operations against Daesh as Syrian forces approached the base, prompting the US to launch an airstrike to deal with the “threat.”
US has many military bases in Syria
Al-Tanf is one of about a dozen illegal military bases operated by the US in Syria, with the rest situated in the country’s oil and food-rich northeastern provinces east of the Euphrates River – which are formally controlled by the US-allied, predominantly Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Forces” militias. Syrian officials estimate that 90 percent of the country’s oil resources are situated in areas occupied by the US.
The US has stationed troops at the Rmelan Airbase in the northeastern al-Hasakah province, and smaller bases at the settlements of Ash Shaddadi, Kharab al-Jeer, Tal tamir, Tal Beydar, and the Hasaka Dam. In neighboring Deir ez-Zor governorate, the US has troops watching over the massive al-Omar oil field and the Conoco gas fields – containing the largest reservoirs of hydrocarbons in the country, plus the so-called Green Village – an oil field-adjacent facility containing housing for troops and a weapons depot.
The US has operated at least three facilities in Raqqa governorate, including the al-Tabqah airbase and ground bases in the settlements of Ayn Issa and Tal al-Samn.
Some of the abovementioned bases were evacuated in 2019 after Turkiye began a military operation against Kurdish militants in the region. However, US forces remain firmly planted on the ground at the oil and gas fields, with Syrian media reporting consistently on the plunder of resources from these facilities and the smuggling of oil, as well as food, to neighboring Iraq.
About 200 of the estimated 900 US troops in Syria are stationed at al-Tanf. The rest are scattered across bases in the northeast of the country. The 900 figure is the estimate commonly cited by US media. However, some observers suggest that the real numbers are much higher, pointing to efforts by officials to obfuscate the numbers not only from the press, but from the president of the United States.
Why Does the US Still Have Forces in Syria?
The Pentagon’s formal justification for the presence of troops in Syria is the fight against Daesh and their potential return to areas occupied by the US and its allies between 2016 and 2018.
However, Syrian authorities and their allies say the true purpose of the facilities is to suffocate Damascus economically and prevent it from rebuilding its economy after a devastating US, Gulf State, and Turkish-backed dirty war began in 2011. Along with its occupation of a third of the country, the US has also slapped crushing sanctions on Syria, with restrictions not only blacklisting Syrian officials and companies, but threatening third countries with retaliatory restrictions if they do business with Damascus. The sanctions have restricted the import of food, medicines, and medical equipment. The US troop presence thereby allows Washington to maintain a military foothold over part of Syria and the region (with costs kept down through oil smuggling), and to spite the government of President Bashar Assad after the unexpected failure of the dirty war.
What is the Status of US Bases in Syria Under International Law?
The US bases in Syria are illegal under international law. The United Nations Charter does not allow a country’s military to be stationed on the territory of another unless its government or the United Nations Security Council authorizes it. Washington received neither Damascus’ permission, nor the approval of the Security Council, for its anti-Daesh operations in Syria.
Where are Russian Troops in Syria?
The Russian military is also present in Syria, operating two facilities – the Khmeimim Air Base, situated outside the city of Latakia, northwest Syria, and a naval resupply base at Tartus in the country’s southwest. Russian fighter jets have launched thousands of sorties out of Khmeimim targeting jihadists and foreign-backed rebels, and provided air cover and other support to Syrian Army ground forces and their allies. Together with support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Quds Force and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militias, Russian military assistance proved instrumental in helping Syria turn the tide against a broad coalition of jihadist militias and “moderate rebels.”
The Russian military is tight-lipped about how many Russian personnel are stationed in Syria. However, last year, the MoD revealed that between 2015 and 2018, during the most active phase of Russian support, roughly 63,000 military personnel were rotated into and out of the country. The number of troops in the country at any one time is considerably lower. For example, in 2018, the MoD revealed that about 2,900 troops had voted in Russian presidential elections, indicating a likely troop contingent of several thousand.
Unlike US forces, the Russian military contingent in Syria is in the country legally, with Russia receiving a formal invitation from the internationally recognized government in Damascus.
Pro-Syrian commentators online frequently ask why the illegal US bases in Syria can’t simply be attacked and kicked out of the country using brute force. Proposing such action is easy, but actually doing it is far more difficult, given the overwhelming air and naval superiority of the US and its allies in the region. United States Central Command, the military command structure responsible for US operations in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, operates more than a dozen major bases in the area, including the massive al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which has over 90 combat and support aircraft, and occasionally hosts nuclear-capable B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers. Washington has made clear – via the 2017 attack on Syrian forces and in other cases, that it will respond to any “threat” to its troops by a state actor in Syria with crushing force. That makes an international pressure campaign calling for the US pullout from Syria the only realistic, if minuscule, opportunity to force the Americans to finally exit the war-torn country.