- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Pentagon is warning the Syrian regime to refrain from attacking U.S.-backed forces in the country, shortly after Syrian President Bashar Assad demanded U.S. forces depart and threatened to launch attacks on territory held by American-backed Kurdish paramilitary units in northeast Syria.

The threats come amid a scramble among several nations and factions in the Syrian civil war, as the Assad government consolidates control of the major cities but faces pressure over the postwar balance of power.

“Any interested party in Syria should understand that attacking U.S. forces or our coalition partners will be a bad policy,” Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told reporters Thursday.

Gen. McKenzie spoke shortly after Mr. Assad told the Russian RT news channel in an interview that the estimated 2,000 U.S. special forces believed to be posted in Syria to combat Islamic State and back up U.S.-allied forces cannot stay in Syria.

“Somehow, they are going to leave,” Mr. Assad said Thursday.

American military advisers and their counterparts in the Syrian Democratic Forces — a coalition of Arab and Kurdish militias battling the Islamic State — have operated from the Syrian city of Deir-ez-Zour and the surrounding Euphrates River Valley for most of the war against the terror group.

A deconfliction zone, recognized by Moscow and Washington, has thus far protected American forces and their allies from Mr. Assad’s push to bring the entire country back under his control.

“We would view very gravely any actions that tended to change that,” Gen. McKenzie told reporters during a Pentagon briefing.

Tensions between Washington and Damascus boiled over in April, when U.S. and allied warplanes launched a series of airstrikes against suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria. The strikes were in retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of the weapons against anti-government forces near the rebel stronghold of Aleppo.

Syrian forces, backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, will “liberate by force” rebel- and Islamic State-held territory, Mr. Assad said. Those comments have raised concerns that U.S.-supported forces could end up in the Syrian government’s crosshairs in the near future.

With President Trump himself raising the prospect of a ending the U.S. troop deployment in Syria in the near future, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White insisted that the U.S. has no intention of intervening in Syria’s civil war.

But, she did call upon Syria and Iran — along with Russia a key military ally to the Assad regime — to pressure the Assad regime to ensure violence does not break out between Syrian and American-backed forces. “[The Assad] regime stays in power because those two regimes continue to support it,” she said during the same Pentagon briefing Thursday.

Mr. Assad told RT Thursday there were no Iranian troops in his country, saying, “We have Iranian officers who work with the Syrian army as help, but they do not have troops.”

The Defense Department’s warnings for Syria come amid reports that Iranian and Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters may have begun withdrawing from areas in southern part of the country close to the tense border with Israel.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday that Iranian advisers and Hezbollah fighters will be withdrawing from the southern regions of Daraa and Quneitra near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The moves were reportedly tied to a clandestine deal between Moscow and Tel Aviv, allowing Damascus to send government troops to territory in southern Syria. Israel has accused Hezbollah and military advisers from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of orchestrating a series of cross-border mortar and missile attacks earlier this month against Israeli positions in the Golan Heights.

Tel Aviv hit back over 30 airstrikes targeting several known jihadi redoubts and training camps inside Palestinian-controlled Gaza, in one of the heaviest Israeli aerial barrage since the 2014 war with Hamas.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu reportedly reached an understanding to push Iranian-backed forces away from Israeli borders, Israeli news outlet Hadashot TV reported last Friday. As part of the deal, Russia is also demanding the withdrawal of all foreign forces — including Iranian, American and Turkish forces — from Syrian territory.

“The state of Israel appreciates Russia’s understanding of our security concerns, particularly regarding the situation at our northern border,” Mr. Lieberman wrote on social media, after meeting with Mr. Shoigu at the Kremlin on Thursday.

Asked in Washington if U.S. forces were weighing a withdrawal, Gen. McKenzie replied, “The situation [in Syria] remains status quo. … We’re there [and] nothing has changed.”

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