US special forces and fighters from Maghaweir al Thowra at the Tanf border crossing in late May.
Photos released by a news outlet affiliated to a Free Syrian Army-branded group show that US special forces have been conducting joint patrols in southern Syria near the Al Tanf crossing. The position of these troops has been the catalyst for US airstrikes against Iranian-backed groups in the area in recent weeks.
Hammurabi’s Justice News, a news outlet affiliated with Maghaweir al Thowra (MaT), has released several photos and videos in recent weeks showing US special forces conducting joint patrols with the group. In addition, several photos show fighters from MaT and American troops guarding the Al Tanf border crossing with Iraq. Special forces from other allied countries are likely featured in some photos, as British and Norwegian special forces are also in the area.
According to the commander of MaT, around 150 US special forces are stationed with the group near Tanf. The commander also said that five other countries have troops stationed with MaT, including two Arab states. MaT is the current incarnation of the New Syrian Army, formed with US support in 2015.
After failing to respond to US warning shots and Russian dissuasion, a pro-regime convoy last month was struck by US airstrikes as it approached within 25 kilometers of a US “deconfliction zone” northwest of the Tanf base. Initially withdrawing following the US strike, the Iranian-directed militias have continued to hold positions near Tanf. A couple weeks later, another airstrike occurred in the same area on more Iranian-backed groups. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Iran tests the US in southeastern Syria.]
Last week, US warplanes shot down a pro-regime drone near Tanf. These strikes, as well as the heavy presence of Iranian-backed militias from Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, has forced the US to deploy long-range artillery to Tanf. According to CNN, the US military moved a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) from Jordan into Syrian territory. The deployment is likely meant to dissuade the Iranian-backed militias from targeting US troops.
Regime forces, alongside its Iranian-controlled allies, recently circled around the Tanf area to reach the Iraqi border. The maneuver allowed the regime to reach the Iraqi border without confronting US troops and several Free Syrian Army-branded groups in the area. However, these forces continue to pose a threat, as the US-led coalition recently stated: “The demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces near coalition and partner forces in southern Syria … continue to concern us, and the coalition will take appropriate measures to protect our forces.”
Pro-regime forces are attempting to conquer territory, reach the besieged Deir Ezzor, check the expansion of US-backed forces in southern and eastern Syria and connect a land supply route to Iraq. These movements raise the risk of further clashes with the US. This risk will be further raised if the coalition, alongside local forces, move to dislodge the Islamic State near Abu Kamal further along the border area in Deir Ezzor.
Photos released by Hammurabi’s Justice and MaT showing US and coalition forces in southern Syria:
Caleb Weiss is an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to The Long War Journal.