WASHINGTON — The Russian Ministry of Defense released a statement Wednesday calling the U.S. an obstacle to defeating ISIS in Syria and threatened military action in and around a small U.S. military garrison known as Tanf.
Russia further claimed that U.S. forces are aiding and supporting ISIS against Russian and Syrian interests in the country.
“The main problem in defeating the ISIS in Syria is not combat capabilities of terrorists but support and overtures by American counterparts,” the statement from the Russian defense ministry reads.
The statement comes as Russian and Syrian forces are reeling from a major counter-offensive launched by ISIS fighters in and around the Deir el-Zour province.
According to ISIS’ propaganda outlet, Amaq, in one attack alone the terror group managed to kill 65 Russian and Syrian regime troops while also kidnapping two Russian soldiers.
Amaq posted video yesterday of the two Russian soldiers they claim to have captured in the village of al-Shula.
However, the Russian Ministry of Defense has denied any Russian troops have been captured, according to a report from Reuters.
The counter-offensive by the ISIS militants is a major setback for the Syrian regime and its Russian backers.
Just last month, the Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower, managed to break a nearly yearlong siege against the Syrian city of Deir el-Zour by ISIS militants.
However, those rapid gains have been beset by considerable losses, including two high ranking officers within the last couple of weeks.
Russian Gen. Valery Asapov was killed in a mortar attack on Sept. 24, according to Russian state-run media TASS.
“The tragedy that we witnessed, the death of a Russian commander, is the price paid in blood for this double dealing in the US’ policy [in the war on terror],” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told TASS about the Russian general’s death.
And on Oct. 1, Russian Col. Valery Fedyanin succumbed to wounds he received when his vehicle struck a landmine in the province of Hama, Syria, on Sept. 22, TASS reported.
Tensions in Deir ez-Zour province are high as U.S.-backed fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces are also battling ISIS militants, just a stone’s throw away from Russian and Syrian forces.
Several analysts have noted that Deir ez-Zour province and the Middle Euphrates River Valley is home to numerous oil fields, which once were used by ISIS to finance the terror regime’s operations.
The congested battle space and contention over control of lucrative oil fields have resulted in alleged bombings by Russian aircraft on two separate occasions.
“We emphasize that we will not stay silent, and we will use our right to legitimate defense and retaliate,” the SDF general command said in statement after an alleged strike Sept. 25 by Russian aircraft wounded several SDF fighters.
The U.S. garrison at Tanf, near the Syria-Iraq border, houses a handful of U.S. special operators and vetted Syrian partner forces. U.S. troops at the outpost are tasked with training former Syrian opposition fighters in the fight against ISIS.
The small garrison has been a spot of tension and drama between the U.S. and the Syrian regime and its Iranian proxy forces.
Over the summer, U.S. aircraft downed two Iranian Shahed 129 drones and conducted several defensive attacks against Iranian-backed militias who encroached on a 50-kilometer deconfliction bubble established by the U.S. around the small outpost.
“If the US considers such operations to be unforeseen accidents, then the Russian Aerospace Forces are ready to eliminate all such ‘accidents’ in the covered zone,” the Russian statement says, referring to the U.S. military garrison at Tanf.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had a more conciliatory message to the U.S.-led coalition, calling for U.S. aircraft to take part in strikes against Jabhat al-Nusra — an al Qaida offshoot that controls much of Idlib province in Syria.
“We would like the United States and the coalition it leads to feel free to coordinate its operations with the Syrian army and the Russian aerospace group,” he said at an international conference on Wednesday, Russian controlled TASS media reported. “Also, it is necessary to ensure the coalition should fight not only against the Islamic State, but also against Jabhat al-Nusra, which for some reason remained untouchable back under the Obama administration.”
Officials at Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) responded to the statement from the Russian defense ministry.
“To say the Coalition is an obstacle to defeating ISIS is absurd and is a disservice to the thousands of partner Iraqi, Syrian, and Coalition service members who have been killed or wounded to fight to annihilate these terrorists,” Col. Ryan Dillon, the spokesperson for OIR, told Military Times.
The coalition with its partner forces “has hunted ISIS down for three years,” he added. “ISIS has been defeated in nearly all of their strongholds as a result of the Coalition’s support to our partners through training, equipping, intelligence, precision fires, and combat advice.”
“More than 6 million people are now no longer under ISIS’ brutal control,” he said. “ISIS leadership is being killed, the flow of foreign fighters has dried up and the loss of territory has significantly impacted their revenue streams.”
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.