Over 100 US Marines sent a "strong message" to Russia with a live-fire exercise in Syria after the Russians threatened to conduct strikes near a key US-led coalition base. US Central Command has released several combat photos of that message to a rival power.
Russia warned the US twice last week that Russian, Syrian, and pro-regime forces planned to conduct operations and launch strikes in the deconfliction zone around the At Tanf garrison, accusing the US and its coalition partners of failing to adequately combat terrorists in the area. The US military, together with its regional partners, responded by holding a live-fire exercise reportedly involving air assets, artillery, and other heavy weaponry meant to send the clear message that it is more than capable of taking on any and all threats.
"The US does not require any assistance in our efforts to destroy ISIS in the At Tanf deconfliction zone and we advised the Russians to remain clear," CENTCOM spokesman Lt. Col. Earl Brown told Business Insider, adding, "Coalition partners are in the At Tanf deconfliction zone for the fight to destroy ISIS. Any claim that the US is harboring or assisting ISIS is grossly inaccurate."
The US military informed the Russians that it is not looking for a fight, but it is more than ready should anyone come looking for one.
"The United States does not seek to fight the Russians, the government of Syria or any groups that may be providing support to Syria in the Syrian civil war," Brown previously told BI in an emailed statement.
"However," he added, "the United States will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend US, coalition or partner forces, as we have clearly demonstrated in past instances."
The At Tanf garrison in Syria serves as a base for US operations against the Islamic State, as well as an obstacle for broader Russian, Syrian, and Iranian interests in the region.
Russia's interest in the deconfliction zone has nothing to do with combating terrorism in the region, a US defence official told BI. The At Tanf deconfliction zone sits in the middle of a major connection between Tehran and Damascus.
Moscow remains critical of the US military presence in Syria. Nonetheless, Russia agreed to a 55-kilometer deconfliction zone around the At Tanf garrison, and the US military continues to expect the Russians to continue to abide by this agreement.
The US military has previously engaged foreign forces that attempted to enter the deconfliction zone. For instance, last summer, coalition troops "destroyed" pro-regime forces that "advanced inside the well-established deconfliction zone," CENTCOM said in a statement.
The exercise came as Russia gathered its naval forces in the Mediterranean to assist Syrian and pro-regime troops as they began a major assault on Idlib, the last stronghold of the Syrian rebels.
The United Nations has stressed that a full-scale assault on Idlib would result in a humanitarian catastrophe. Tens of thousands of people have already begun fleeing the area.
The US has warned the Syrian regime led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that any use of chemical weapons will be met with a strong, swift response. "The president expects us to have military options in the event that chemical weapons are used,' Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said over the weekend, adding, "We have provided updates to him on the development of those military options."
US strikes on Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons run contrary to Russian interests and have resulted in criticism from Moscow.
Tensions between the US and Russia, however, extend beyond the Syrian battlegrounds
Russia is currently holding major war games with China in the eastern part of the country, and these exercises are expected to be held on a "regular basis" going forward. The Pentagon is watching closely as the two US rivals strive to strengthen military ties.
During the drills, Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers escorted by Su-35 Flanker fighter jets were intercepted by F-22 stealth fighters near Alaska. It was the second time this month that American military aircraft have intercepted Russian bombers near the state.