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US Marines carry out exercises with Syrian opposition group

US Marines seen during a training excercise with the Royal Army of Oman (not seen) at Senoor Beach, Oman, on February 15, 2017 [Gunnery Sgt. Robert B. Brown Jr. / US Marine Corps]
US Marines seen during a training excercise with the Royal Army of Oman (not seen) at Senoor Beach, Oman, on February 15, 2017 [Gunnery Sgt. Robert B. Brown Jr. / US Marine Corps]

The leader of a Syrian armed opposition group has confirmed that military exercises have been held with US Marines in southern Syria. “This sends a strong message to Russia and Iran that the Americans and the opposition fighters intend to stay and face any threat,” explained Muhannad Al-Tala of the Revolutionary Commando Army, which is backed by the Pentagon.

Al-Tala said that the eight-day exercise, which ended this week at the US military site in Al-Tanf, close to Syria’s border with Jordan and Iraq, was the first of its kind. Live ammunition was used in simulated air and ground attacks involving hundreds of US soldiers and opposition fighters.

Such manoeuvres between the Syrian armed opposition and the coalition forces are of great importance, he added. They enhance the defence capabilities of the region and increase the capacity and morale of the fighters as well as the civilians in the area in which they were conducted.

According to a US military spokesman, the exercises were meant to strengthen capabilities and ensure readiness to respond to any threat to US forces within its area of operations. They were held amid escalating tension between the US and Russia in Syria and the mobilisation of naval vessels in the Mediterranean.

Al-Tanf is located on a strategic highway which links Damascus to Baghdad and was once a major supply route for Iranian weapons to Syria, before Washington announced a 55-km quarantine area that was banned to other parties as a “no-clash zone”. This makes the military base a bulwark against Iran and part of a larger campaign to counter Iranian military expansion in the Middle East.

The area has become a safe haven for more than 50,000 civilians living in Al-Rukban refugee camp. In August, the Russian Defence Ministry repeated an accusation that Washington was harbouring militants from Daesh there. The base was established during battles against Daesh fighters who once controlled areas in eastern Syria along the border with Iraq.

After expelling Daesh, US-led coalition aircraft struck Iranian-backed militants on several occasions to prevent them from advancing into the region. Washington described these measures as self-defence. Controlling that area has long been the goal of the Syrian government and its allies Russia and Iran.

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