General Joseph Votel, the top US commander for the Middle East, on Monday made an unannounced visit to Al Tanf base south-east of Syria, where he met and reaffirmed the presence of American troops in the area.
Gen Votel, who heads the US Central Command, is the highest-level US commander to visit the base inside Syria. Washington and allied Syrian democratic forces took control of Al Tanf in early 2017 after liberating the area near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders from ISIS.
A Centcom official confirmed to The National that Gen Votel's visit highlighted the importance of Al Tanf in combatting ISIS and preventing its comeback. The Associated Press, which first reported the visit, said the "US garrison [in Tanf] supports 200-300 US and coalition troops training Syrian opposition forces to fight the Islamic State".
Nicholas Heras of the Centre for New American Security told The National that Gen Votel's visit to Al Tanf "is meant to send a message that the US campaign against Daesh is not ending, it has just entering a new phase and the American base in Tanf is a key asset in that campaign".
The stop, Mr Heras argued, is also “a signal to Russia, Iran, and Assad that the United States has no intention to evacuate from any of the bases that it has established in Syria … and that Assad and his allies best get used to it”.
Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Mouallem warned the US over its presence in the country last month at the United Nations. “We are committed to continuing the holy battle until we clear the entire territory of Syria of terrorist groups and illegal foreign presence," Mr Al Muallem said.
He also tied US presence in eastern Syria to the presence of ISIS, alleging that the terrorist attack on Suweida was carried out by fighters who came from Tanf area where the US is present .
But Gen Votel speaking earlier this month recommitted the US to its troop presence in Syria and said it plays “an indirect role in supporting our broader pressure campaign against Iran”.