Russia has warned the U.S. that its military and allied Syrian forces are ready to attack a key U.S.-held base near the borders of Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, US defense officials said in a CNN report published on Thursday.
The Kremlin is said to have accused the U.S.-led coalition base At Tanf of protecting nearby militants, with Russia delivering two warnings in the past week, CNN said, citing U.S. officials. At Tanf, from which a coalition of dozens of U.S. troops and Syrian rebels launch operations against the Islamic State terrorist group, is seen as a critical location within the scope of Iranian, Syrian, and Russian influence in the region.
“We have absolutely advised them to stay out of At Tanf,” a U.S. official told CNN. “We are postured to respond.”
“The United States does not seek to fight the government of Syria or any groups that may be providing it support,” another official added. “However, if attacked, the United States will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend U.S., coalition, or partner forces.”
U.S. troops would not need permission from superiors to defend themselves if attacked, which the U.S. reiterated to the Kremlin, CNN reported.
A state-sanctioned attack by Russia could spark a flashpoint conflict in the region. Tensions were raised in February after dozens of Russian mercenaries were killed during a failed assault on a U.S-held position near the city of Deir al-Zor.
Russian forces have not recently been seen amassing their troops; however, the U.S. military is still on alert, officials said. Senior military officials, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are aware of the warnings, CNN said.
Russia's warnings come amid a looming assault by Syrian and Iranian forces against the city of Idlib, where Syrian rebels have been cornered. Russia delivered an ominous warning last week that some experts saw as an indication that the Syrian government might indiscriminately use chemical weapons against the city.
The U.S. followed with a threat of its own, warning Syrian President Bashar Assad that if he “chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its Allies will respond swiftly and appropriately.”
“President Donald J. Trump has warned that such an attack would be a reckless escalation of an already tragic conflict and would risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a statement.
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