Pentagon Confirms Russian Strike Targeting Syria Rebels With Ties to U.S.

The Pentagon has confirmed to Newsweek that the Russian military conducted its second known strike in two months near a U.S. base in Syria, as multiple rival powers in the divided nation ramp up efforts to push competing agendas.

The Russian Defense Ministry announced Friday that, while patrolling the skies of Syria, "the Russian Aerospace Forces identified and destroyed a group of militants of the terrorist group 'Liwa Shuhada al-Qaryatayn'" as they hid in shelters located in the Syrian desert in a strike conducted the previous day.

"This terrorist group is based in the Al-Tanf zone, supplied and trained by instructors from the US Army Special Operations Forces," the Russian Defense Ministry said. "Operating from the desert, the Liwa Shuhada al-Qaryatayn militants carried out acts of sabotage against the civilian population and civilian infrastructure in Syria."

The ministry said that "all militants were successfully destroyed" in the operation.

Liwa Shuhada al-Qaryatayn was once part of a network of rebel groups that received direct support from the United States, which first backed insurgents against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and then the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

However, the U.S.-led coalition against the jihadis announced in 2017 that it would cut support for Liwa Shuhada al-Qaryatayn, and local outlets reported the following year the group was relocating to opposition-held areas in the north.

Reached for comment, the spokesperson for U.S. Central Command told Newsweek that "CENTCOM is aware of the strike, but does not have information to provide to you on this."

Russia, strikes, Syria, rebels, near, US, base
Footage published August 5 by the Russian Defense Ministry is purported to show an August 4 Russian Aerospace Force strike against the rebel Liwa Shuhada al-Qaryatayn militia in Syria's southeastern desert region, where the U.S. maintains the Al-Tanf garrison. Russian Ministry of Defense

The spokesperson referred to the Syrian Democratic Forces for further comment. Newsweek has contacted the SDF's political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council.

Newsweek also reached out to the Maghawir al-Thawra, another insurgent group that still receives U.S. backing in Al-Tanf. A representative of the group said the strike still "appears to be rumors."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitor with ties to Syria's exiled opposition, cited unnamed sources in Al-Rukban refugee camp located within the roughly 34-mile Al-Tanf deconfliction zone established unilaterally by the U.S. in 2016 saying Russian jets were seen conducting airstrikes in the Syrian desert adjacent to the U.S.-controlled area but not against positions of Liwa Shuhada al-Qaryatayn, whose headquarters was said to be located less than four miles from the Al-Tanf deconfliction zone.

Russia has rejected the legitimacy of U.S. control in this part of Syria and recent strikes here have been attributed to Moscow.

Maghawir al-Thawra was targeted in June by airstrikes in Al-Tanf that U.S. officials have reportedly attributed to Russia, which was said to have given the U.S. warning of the strike and to have targeted the group in response to roadside bombings. The Al-Tanf garrison, located near the southeastern borders with Iraq and Jordan, is surrounded by a 34-mile exclusion zone declared unilaterally by the U.S. around 2016.

Much of the U.S. military presence in Syria is concentrated elsewhere in the northeast, where the Kurdish-led SDF maintains an autonomous administration. Russia too operates in this area, supporting the forces of Syria's central government in Damascus.

Frictions between Washington and Moscow's rival interests in Syria have existed since the conflict began in 2011 as state crackdowns on protests devolved into armed revolt. The U.S. cut off relations with Syria over widespread allegations of human rights abuses and began to back the insurgency to topple Assad, until switching focus to backing the SDF in 2015. That same year, Russia intervened on behalf of Assad, who was also receiving support from Iran.

Separate campaigns led by the pro-government axis and U.S.-led coalition routed ISIS across the country, leaving these two factions as the most influential players in the ongoing conflict. Attempts to reconcile the Syrian government and SDF have so far unraveled without any lasting agreement, though they continue to face another common foe: Turkey.

Ankara has continued to back opposition groups with a primary focus of challenging Kurdish presence that the Turkish government considers to be an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and has threatened in recent months to conduct a fourth major intervention in Syria.

Hours after reports emerged of Thursday's Russian airstrike in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sat down for talks in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi. Among other topics, including a recent deal to export grain that marked the first deal involving Moscow and Kyiv since their war began in February, Syria was on the agenda.

In a joint statement, the two men "reiterated that they attach greater significance to the efforts to promote the political process" and "stressed the importance of preserving Syria's political unity and territorial integrity." They also restated their "commitment to act together and in close coordination to fight against all terrorist organizations."

It was their second meeting in less than a month after they met in Tehran alongside Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi as part of the trilateral Astana process aimed at resolving Syria's more than 11-year-long civil war. Despite their competing interests in the country, all three leaders called for a U.S. military withdrawal from Syria.

Following the trio's talks in Tehran, a senior official of President Joe Biden's administration told Newsweek that "we do not anticipate any near-term changes to the U.S. military presence in eastern Syria."

"The Biden Administration's priorities for Syria are clear: promote commitment to ceasefires, expand humanitarian access, and ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS, while continuing to support the UN-led political process pursuant to UNSCR 2254," the official said at the time. "The U.S. military mission in eastern Syria is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. There is no military mission beyond that objective."

Asked about the threat potentially posed to U.S. troops by other powers intensifying operations, the official said that "U.S. forces are well protected and retain the inherent right of self-defense."

"We have contingencies in place to handle potential escalations," the official added.