The Syrian regime and its allies have been conducting a years-long smear campaign via "friendly" media outlets that seeks to distort the public perception of the US presence at al-Tanf base in the tri-border area of southern Syria.
This campaign aims to promote and justify the actions and agenda of the Syrian regime and Russia, which effectively controls its military, and their ally, Iran, which controls militias in the area and is actively seeking a foothold there.
It does this by spreading false information about al-Rukban, an informal camp in the desert along the border with Jordan, and about the actions and motives of international coalition personnel and their allies at nearby al-Tanf garrison.
Al-Tanf is at the hub of a 55km deconfliction zone established by the United States, which has been battling the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) as part of the international coalition and is committed to preventing its resurgence.
Though ISIS suffered a resounding military defeat, it has remained active in the desert surrounding the deconfliction zone, with a recent spate of attacks in the surrounding area targeting Syrian regime and Russian soldiers.
Russia and Iran maintain a presence in this area, ostensibly to fight ISIS but in reality to pursue their own ambitions and those of the Syrian regime.
These ambitions have given rise to a disinformation campaign that attempts to distort the reality of the situation in the area and cast the United States in a negative light.
Ongoing smear campaign
Stories published in pro-regime media outlets insinuate that residents of al-Rukban camp are being held there against their will and that the United States is responsible for the dire conditions at the camp, when in fact this is not the case.
There has been a bread crisis in the camp due to an acute shortage of flour. Local activists and rights groups blame it on the Syrian regime.
"Conditions in al-Rukban camp are dire because the regime and Russia control the supply routes," said al-Rukban camp relief worker Tariq al-Nuaimi.
Russia and the Syrian regime "are using this as a pressure card to 'evacuate' civilians from al-Rukban camp", he said. "The civilians, on the other hand, prefer to stay, despite the harsh conditions they are living under, rather than return to regime-held areas."
The majority of the camp's residents hail from areas of Syria that are controlled by the regime and its allies, al-Nuaimi explained.
Men from those areas are under "severe pressure" to return to them, in order to be conscripted into the Syrian army, he said -- which is one of the key reasons why they have opted to remain at al-Rukban camp.
"Civilians in al-Rukban are suffering from systematic starvation, engineered by the Syrian and Russian forces," the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre said in a June 25 report.
The goal is "to push civilians to return to areas under the control of the Syrian government", according to the report.
Preventing ISIS infiltration
Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra, a Syrian opposition faction backed by the international coalition, continues to conduct combat operations and undergo training in the area, said group member Nassif al-Khaledi.
The group aims to prevent ISIS elements from infiltrating the area, he said.
He noted that Syrian regime, Russian and Iran-backed forces have been active in the surrounding desert as they attempt to establish a presence in the tri-border area of Syria, Iraq and Jordan, on the Damascus-Baghdad highway.
These attempts to establish a foothold in the area are being accompanied by "a systematic media smear campaign conducted by Syrian regime media" against the international coalition, United States and Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra, he said.
Various regime-affiliated outlets have been spreading rumours that "terrorists" are being trained in the deconfliction area, and will be transported to other locations to fight, he said, "which, of course, is totally false and utterly illogical".
It is true that training is ongoing on the al-Tanf military base, he said, but this is for Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra -- for new members of the group and to increase the combat capabilities of its veterans.
"Russia and Iran want to control the area using any means possible, and to expel US forces, without whose presence and the existence of al-Tanf military base, this area would not have been liberated from ISIS," al-Khaledi said.
He also noted that al-Rukban camp would not have existed in the first place if thousands of civilians had not "fled the oppression and brutality of the regime" and its allies in search of a safe harbour.
Regime, Russia, Iran 'main source of terrorism'
Despite the difficult conditions, al-Rukban resident Raheef al-Khaledi said, he and all those who remain at the camp prefer to stay there until a final solution to their situation is found.
"There is a safety factor in the camp, and this is essential for everyone," he said. "This factor would not exist without the US base in al-Tanf, near the camp, and the US-backed Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra."
These forces have been working "to secure the area, protect civilians and repel any attempt by ISIS, the regime, or other militias to come near the civilians", he said.
"The rumours about the camp and the base are unbelievable, especially with regard to the training of terrorists," he said.
Al-Rukban residents see this campaign of disinformation as smearing not only forces stationed at al-Tanf garrison but also Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra and al-Rukban residents themselves, he added.
He noted that the main source of "terrorism" is the Syrian regime itself, along with Russia, Iran and allied militias, "who are responsible for the killing and wounding of tens of thousands of Syrians since the outbreak of the crisis".