From ISIS To US-Backed "New Syrian Army" – "They Change Their Spots" Russia Alleges
According to a new Reuters report, the chief of the Russian General Staff has accused the United States of hosting a training facility for ISIS fighters in Syria along the Syria-Iraq border. Al-Tanf base on Syria's southeast side has been under the control of the US-backed "New Syrian Army" and their US special forces advisers since the area was captured from ISIS in August of 2016.
Russia has previously called the base a 100km wide “black hole” operated by the US wherein an assortment of unaccountable armed groups and militants can operate freely. That American troops have long been deployed there was previously confirmed through multiple photographs and videos released early in the summer of 2017 which showed US elite soldiers on active patrols with Syrian rebel factions associated with the Free Syrian Army (or FSA, elements of which were more recently renamed the New Syrian Army).
Photos above and below were made public last summer which shows ongoing training of "New Syrian Army" fighters by US military advisers. Russia now alleges ISIS members have sought the protection of the base and area under its control. Russia's top general said this week, "They are practically Islamic State. But after they are worked with, they change their spots and take on another name." The images were originally published through Hammurabi’s Justice News, a news outlet affiliated with Maghaweir al Thowra (MaT) – a faction which is the latest incarnation of the US-created New Syrian Army. Via the Long War Journal
The head of Russia’s General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, made the allegations in an interview on Wednesday with Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, saying that the US base is illegal (and presumably the other roughly up to 10 or more known bases) as the Americans have no right to violate Syrian sovereignty and have not been invited to be there by Damascus in the first place. Russian military officials have recently indicated that the Syrian Army has essentially cut off the area and isolated US-backed forces' ability to expand. If true this raises significant doubts concerning how the presumed "anti-ISIL" mission of US coalition forces are valid or relevant, or how a direct US military presence in the remote southeast region could be justified.
Early this month Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the Islamic State had been destroyed and no longer holds cities or significant territory, though insurgent pockets remain. And at the same time the Russian "mission accomplished" announcement was being widely reported, the Pentagon said US forces would stay in Syria "as long as we need to, to support our partners and prevent the return of terrorist groups." Meanwhile, this week Russia has moved forward with plans brokered with the Syrian government to maintain two permanent Russian military bases on the Mediterranean – the naval station at Tartus and Khmeimim airbase outside of Latakia.
General Gerasimov told the Russian newspaper that the defense ministry possessed drone and satellite footage confirming large numbers of ISIS-affiliated fighters at the US base at Tanf. "They are in reality being trained there,” Gerasimov said, and continued “They are practically Islamic State. But after they are worked with, they change their spots and take on another name. Their task is to destabilize the situation."
Thus the allegation appears to be that as ISIS loses territory and is rooted out of various pockets in the east, its fighters then conveniently declare their allegiance to US-backed FSA/New Syrian Army factions, after which they enter training programs hosted by US advisers.
Gerasimov further indicated that some 400 militants recently left a town in the southern al-Hasakah Province for al-Tanf, launching an offensive on the Syrian forces from the eastern bank of Euphrates, after the main ISIS forces were routed there. Russia has over the past months accused the US coalition of essentially relocating ISIS fighters in order to allow their redeploying to locations where they could attack and pressure Syrian and Russian aligned forces.
In one major instance related to the coalition and SDF victory over ISIS in Raqqa, a bombshell investigative report produced by no less than BBC News confirmed that Russia has certainly had reason to be suspicious of the Pentagon's motives and strategy inside Syria. According the November BBC report:
The BBC has uncovered details of a secret deal that let hundreds of Islamic State fighters and their families escape from Raqqa, under the gaze of the US and British-led coalition and Kurdish-led forces who control the city. A convoy included some of IS's most notorious members and – despite reassurances – dozens of foreign fighters. Some of those have spread out across Syria, even making it as far as Turkey.
And concerning the latest accusations of US-ISIS complicity in al-Tanf, Gen. Gerasimov further said the pattern continues: "The most important is that we have been seeing the militants advancing from there for several months. When the control [of the Syrian forces] loosened, as many as 350 militants left the area." He further said of the Russian-Syrian fight against ISIS in the area, "We took timely measures…they have suffered a defeat, these forces were destroyed. There were captives from these camps. It is clear that training is underway at those camps."
And he continued, "Instead of the New Syrian Army, mobile ISIS groups, like a jack in the box, carry out sabotage and terrorist attacks against Syrian troops and civilians from there." And though the pretext for the Tanf base’s creation was "the need to conduct operations against ISIS" – the rapid recent demise of ISIS proves that the Americans have ulterior motives, according to the Russian general.
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has heightened his rhetoric of late regarding uninvited foreign forces operating on Syrian soil. He said last week in a televised interview which was subsequently posted to multiple Syrian official social media channels: "Those who work with foreigners against their army are traitors." Assad has also on multiple occasions promised to return all of natural Syria to the control of the Syrian government and army.