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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks with reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, May 19, 2017.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks with reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, May 19, 2017. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The United States has warned Iran-backed forces fighting for the Syrian government to move away from a base in southern Syria where U.S. troops train anti-Islamic State fighters, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday.

American warplanes over the weekend dropped leaflets containing the warning on the militiamen who have been observed in recent days conducting armed patrols near At Tanf, where major forces operating in Syria – including the Syrian regime and the United States – have agreed not to fight, according to Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman.

The warning came less than two weeks after the U.S. conducted an airstrike against fighters with the same group who ventured too close to the base at At Tanf, where American special operators have for more than a year trained Syrian rebels to fight ISIS.

“These patrols and the continued armed and hostile presence of forces inside the deconfliction zone is unacceptable and it threatens coalition forces,” Davis said. “Coalition forces are prepared to defend themselves again if pro-regime forces refuse to vacate the zone.”

The May 18 airstrike on the pro-Syrian fighters targeted forces setting up what appeared to be a fire base less than 35 miles from the training base. Davis said the militia was constructing fighting positions and preparing to deploy artillery pieces into the fire base.

Those actions threatened American and other anti-ISIS troops, eventually forcing the coalition to attack, Davis said.

He said the United States made several attempts to warn the militia to leave the area before striking it, including communicating to Russia that American planes would attack if the fighters did not leave.

“We were forced to strike that out of self-defense,” Davis said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said the attack did not signal any shift in the Pentagon’s policy in Syria to focus its fighting on ISIS.

The pro-regime militia has not ventured as close to the At Tanf base since it was struck, Davis said, describing its current location as “further up the road.” But the continued presence of some forces inside the non-hostility zone is seen by the coalition as a threatening gesture.

The militia is made up of hundreds of fighters who are supported by Iran and supplied weapons by the Syrian army, Davis said. He estimated only a small number were operating within the zone. Those are the fighters targeted by the leaflets.

“This is a group we are very concerned about, and they need to stay away,” he said.

“We call on all parties in southern Syria to focus their efforts on the defeat of ISIS, which is our common enemy and the greatest threat to regional and worldwide peace and security.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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