- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Hundreds of Iranian-backed militiamen, fighting alongside government troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, are amassing near a U.S.-training base located near the country’s border with Iraq, the Defense Department confirmed Tuesday.

Pro-Assad fighters supported by Tehran have begun conducting patrols near the southern Syrian town of At Tanf, which is home to a U.S. training camp for moderate Syrian militias battling the Islamic State, said Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis.

American commanders and their Russian counterparts, deployed to Syria in support of the Assad regime, have designated At Tanf and the surrounding areas as a deconfliction zone, which bars any interference by any outside forces of coalition operations within the area.

“We continue to see massing [of forces] and we are concerned about that,” Capt. Davis told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday. “These patrols are unacceptable and threaten coalition forces” operating within the deconfliction zones, he said, adding that American forces would defend themselves, should regime troops attempt to breach the zone.

American and coalition aircraft have dropped leaflets onto regime positions near At Tanf, in an effort to encourage those forces to cease their patrols and move away from the zone, Capt. Davis said.

His comments came amid reports that U.S. weapons and vehicles have been shipped to Syrian Kurds, as part of a plan authorized by President Trump to overtly supply U.S. heavy weapons, artillery and tactical vehicles to Kurdish elements battling the Islamic State in Syria.

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The Kurdish paramilitaries, under the U.S.-backed umbrella of several Kurdish and Arab paramilitary groups known as Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, received shipments of small arms and vehicles over the last 24 hours, Reuters reports.

Among the recipients of those weapons deliveries were members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The group, which is a key member of the SDF, is the armed wing of the Kurdish Worker’s Party or PKK. The group is responsible for numerous bombings and attacks inside Turkey, prompting Ankara to label the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Earlier this month, American fighters launched an airstrike against a convoy of Iranian paramilitaries who attempted to enter the deconfliction zone near At Tanf. it was the first U.S. airstrike in Syria explicitly targeting forces loyal to the Assad regime.

Initially, U.S. forces identified the convoy as belonging to the Syrian military. A day later, Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed the target of the airstrike to be “Iranian-directed troops” during a May 19 press conference.

Coalition officials initially tried to stem the advance of the Iranian convoy with a series of warning shots and U.S. aircraft carrying out a low flyover above the convoy in a show of force. Coalition forces even reached out to Russian counterparts, via the standing deconfliction channel between the two militaries, in order to halt the Iranian force advancing into the zone, command officials say.

In the end, U.S. fighters were forced to engage the Iranian force by launching airstrikes against the convoy.

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Capt. Davis on Tuesday declined to comment on whether the roving patrols near At Tanf were either directed by elements of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps or whether they were affiliated with Hezbollah, the terrorist organization sponsored by Tehran.

Both organizations have fought alongside regime forces to retake territory from rebel groups battling to overthrow the regime for the last six years. Earlier this year, with the support of a blistering Russian aerial assault, Iranian and regime forces were able to retake the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, which had been under opposition control for four years.

Tehran’s interference in Syria and its support for the Assad regime has only served to extend the country’s bloody civil war, Mr. Mattis said earlier this month.

“Iran’s activities have not been helpful … extending a war that should have been done years ago,” the Pentagon chief said at the time.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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