US concern growing over pro-Syrian regime forces amassing near coalition training facility

PHOTO: A U.S.-backed anti-government Syrian fighter from Maghaweer al-Thawra, left, next to an American soldier as they take their position at the Syrian-Iraqi crossing border point of Tanf, south Syria, May 23, 2017. PlayHammurabi's Justice News via AP
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The U.S. military is growing increasingly concerned about two groups of pro-Syrian regime forces near a coalition training facility at Tanf, Syria, and has asked some pro-regime forces to leave the area. The facility trains local partner forces to combat ISIS in southeastern Syria.

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The U.S. has warned the groups that they are inside and around a "deconfliction zone" established by the U.S. and Russia. Deconfliction is the term the Pentagon uses to describe its contacts with Russia to ensure there are no misunderstandings about each country’s operations in Syria.

This deconfliction zone extends about 34 miles out from the city center and the Pentagon says a small pro-regime force is inside the zone while a larger pro-regime force is patrolling around the zone's perimeter. Both groups are northwest of Tanf.

The group outside the zone has built up its forces and combat power, Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S. military's operations in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, known as Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters during a phone briefing Thursday.

"We have increased our presence and our footprint and prepared for any threat that is presented by the pro-regime forces," Dillon said.

He wouldn't indicate how many pro-regime forces make up these groups but U.S. officials have previously said that they number in the low hundreds.

According to Dillon, there are "a couple hundred" U.S., coalition and partner forces at Tanf. He said the U.S. has also increased its presence, including combat power, in that area and that it continues to fly combat air patrols.

The Pentagon considers the groups "unacceptable and threatening" to coalition forces, Dillon said, adding: "We are prepared to defend ourselves if pro-regime forces refuse to vacate the deconfliction zone."

The U.S. dropped 90,000 leaflets on pro-regime forces inside a deconfliction zone around At Tanf, Syria in late May, asking them to leave the area immediately. The leaflet, given to ABC News by the Department of Defense, provides an English translation. DOD
The U.S. dropped 90,000 leaflets on pro-regime forces inside a deconfliction zone around At Tanf, Syria in late May, asking them to "leave the area immediately." The leaflet, given to ABC News by the Department of Defense, provides an English translation.

On May 18, the U.S. dropped munitions on the group outside the zone after they entered the zone and refused to return back outside. The militia ignored Russian requests to halt its advance and ignored a "show of force" from coalition aircraft and warning shots.

Following the U.S. strike, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters the move was defensive in nature and that the group was believed to be directed by Iran.

Now, the U.S. has used its deconfliction channel to communicate with the Russians once again that it wants those forces out of the zone, Dillon said. Separately, a U.S. official confirmed that the Russians have passed on the message to the pro-regime forces.

Over the weekend, the U.S. dropped 90,000 leaflets on the forces inside the deconfliction zone, asking them to "leave the area immediately," according to an English translation of the leaflet provided by the Pentagon to ABC News.

Dillon would not comment on whether another U.S. strike on the group was imminent.