Barbara Starr, CNN.com Pentagon Correspondent
More than 100 US troops began an unexpected exercise in southern Syria on Friday in direct response to a series of Russian military threats, according to a US defense official.
The exercise was detailed in a statement from the US Central Command but did not mention that the command ordered the exercise specifically after a September 1 warning from Russia that it was going to enter a restricted area of southern Syria where US troops are located, the official said.
The exercise, which may last for several days, involves US troops flying into the coalition’s At Tanf garrison by assault helicopter and conducting live fire drills.
“Our forces will demonstrate the capability to deploy rapidly, assault a target with integrated air and ground forces and conduct rapid exfiltration,” said Capt. William Urban, the chief Central Command spokesman. The exercise is specifically designed for Russian and regime units in the area to see the activity and understand US capabilities, defense officials say.
Russia on Thursday, via a note, had warned the US for the second time it was going to attack the At Tanf area to go after militants there. But the second warning specified Moscow would use “precision strikes,” according to Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman. The use of the wording “precision strikes” in a written note to the US sparked alarm with US commanders that the Russians are signaling their intent to strike with aircraft firing precision weapons, or missiles launched from Russian ships in the Mediterranean, US defense officials tell CNN.
Attacking with those types of weapons in a specific campaign against the US protected area at At Tanf would be a significant escalation in the sporadic violence in the area. The Pentagon has been unusually public in disclosing the potential Russian threat, in hopes that its statements will warn the Russians off the area.
The first Russian warning came via the US Russian deconfliction line that has been used for the last several years to ensure both sides have visibility on what is happening in the area. In turn, the US used the deconfliction line to tell the Russians the ongoing US military activity is an exercise.
“The United States does not seek to fight the Russians, the government of Syria or any groups that may be providing support to Syria in the Syrian civil war. However, the United States will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend US, coalition or partner forces, as we have clearly demonstrated in past instances,” Robertson said.
The exercises come as the Trump administration continues to deliver increasingly strident warnings over an assault on Idlib.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley warned Friday that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia, and Iran carry out an assault on Idlib, “the consequences will be dire.”
“The United States has been very clear,” she said at a UN Security Council meeting, “with Russia and with the broader international community: we consider any assault on Idlib to be a dangerous escalation of the conflict in Syria.”