Al Tanf Garrison
The United States occupies a 34-mile zone around its military base in Al-Tanf, where it trains and equips armed Syrian opposition forces. The Rukban refugee camp is located some 11 miles south of Al-Tanf and inside the US-controlled zone on the Syrian-Jordanian border. Control of eastern Syria includes the power to block or link up Iranian supply routes from Tehran to its most important proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. Jordan, Iraq, and Syria all meet in the area surrounding the Al Tanf Garrison, a potential space through which Iran could create a continuous land bridge that would stretch to the Mediterranean.
By early 2016 the al-Tanf crossing point on Syria-Iraq border was cleared of Daesh elements. Islamic State militants seized the last Syrian government-controlled border crossing between Syria and Iraq, a Syria monitoring group said 22 May 2015. Government forces withdrew from al-Tanf - known as al-Waleed in Iraq - crossing as IS advanced, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said. The loss of al-Tanf to IS followed the group's takeover of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.
In 2016 the United States established a training program for Free Syrian Army militants at its military base in al-Tanf to fight Daesh terrorists in the region. The United States had been concerned over the possibility of Iranian forces, fighting in support of the Syrian government, seizing the US outpost in al-Tanf. High-ranking aides were cited by the media as saying that they saw it as a chance to expand the campaign against the Iranian forces in the war-ravaged country.
The US established a “deconfliction zone” in the area that spans about 55 kilometers around the base. The zone is meant to protect the United States and its allies as they battle the Islamic State militant group, and it essentially prevents any non-US ally from entering the area. “One quiet rationale for maintaining a presence there is to at least monitor and then perhaps deter some of the Iranian forces, or Iranian-backed forces that may have used that part of the country to transit into Syria,” said Brian Katulis with the Center for American Progress.
In early 2017, US forces for the first time directly engaged Syrian regime and pro-government forces, including in separate incidents near Tabqa in the north and At Tanf in the south. DoD officials stated that the action was taken to protect Coalition and partner forces and after warnings were issued.
Coalition forces fought ISIS and Syrian regime forces and shot down pro-Syrian regime drones near the site of the Coalition training garrison near the Jordanian border. Coalition and Syrian opposition groups repelled an ISIS attack targeting the At Tanf garrison on 10 April 2018. ISIS initiated the attack with a car bomb and as many as 30 suicide bombers. Coalition and partner forces destroyed the force with direct fire and airstrikes. The first U.S. military airstrike on Iranian-backed militia at Syrian border town, At Tanf, came on 18 May 2017. The second U.S. military airstrike on Iranian-backed militias operating near At Tanf came on 06 June 2017.
The deconfliction zone contained a key road linking Iraq and the Syrian interior. Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford stated that the zone allows vetted Syrian opposition troops “to move toward…ISIS-controlled cities…crush ISIS and bolster its allies’ standing …as a means of containing Iranian influence” and to block Syrian regime and pro-regime forces from moving toward ISIS-controlled Dayr az Zawr province. However, on 10 June 2017, Syrian regime and pro-regime forces bypassed At Tanf and reached the border with Iraq, effectively blocking the advance of U.S.-backed Syrian opposition forces toward ISIS-held areas in Dayr az Zawr.
Colonel Ryan Dillon, in a Department of Defense Press Briefing 03 August 2017 by via teleconference from Baghdad, stated "... we still do have coalition forces that are there and there with our vetted Syrian opposition force that we're working with outside of al-Tanf, and still conducting patrols and training with them in and around the Haman Desert area in and out of al-Tanf garrison.... We do know that not far from al-Tanf garrison there are ISIS that still remain, and we've known that because other elements that are in and around have been in contact with ISIS fighters. So we will continue to train. And that's one of the other reasons why we are there in al-Tanf, is so that we can train these forces that we are -- have been working with, so that they're prepared and ready for potential future fights that may be along the middle Euphrates River Valley."
Donald Trump promised to “leave Syria, like, very soon” as the US has allegedly accomplished its mission to “knock out” Daesh*. According to The Washington Post, the al-Tanf base’s fate illustrated the confusion characterizing Trump’s response to Iranian increasing "political and military influence" across the region. Initially, the base was established to fight armed militant groups and recapture a strategic border crossing at Bukamal, but since Trump took office, he promised to act decisively against the Islamic Republic, which allegedly joined Syrian government troops and frustrated US plans to move northwest.
As Trump accused Tehran of fomenting “violence” and fueling “bloodshed and chaos” across the Middle East, the anti-Daesh mission in al-Tanf smoothly shifted to countering the alleged Iranian presence in the area. Trump’s top military aides are, however, reluctant to kick-off a larger campaign in Syria out of concerns over the safety of troops positioned in the region.
Moscow voiced concerns that Washington was “spewing Daesh mobile groups who make inroads to launch subversive terrorist operations against Syrian troops and civilians.” The assistant to the secretary of the Russian Security Council told Sputnik 13 May 2018: "The situation when the United States is virtually occupying a 55-kilometer [34-mile] zone around At-Tanf on the Syrian-Jordanian border without the consent of the Syrian Government, is bewildering. This zone includes the infamous Rukban refugee camp, where militants from illegal armed groups are freely moving near the US Armed Forces".
The US military presence near the Al-Tanf military base and nearby Rukban refugee camp in the south of Syria is "pure aggression and occupation," head of the Syrian government delegation to the Astana reconciliation talks Bashar Jaafari told reporters 14 May 2018. "For us, the American military presence in Syria is a pure aggression and occupation. We sent an official letter to the UNSC [UN Security Council], as well as to the Secretary-General in this regard," Jaafari said.
Unknown forces attacked the Al-Tanf base the US-led coalition said 22 June 2018. The coalition forces returned fire and suffered no casualties. “Maghawir al-Thowra fighters and coalition advisers within the deconfliction zone near Al-Tanf were engaged by an unidentified hostile force located just outside the deconfliction zone in the early evening June 21,” the coalition spokesperson told Sputnik news agency in an email. The statement added that officials were “engaged with Russian counterparts on the deconfliction line to ensure no miscalculations.”
The skirmish was acknowledged by the US forces amid media reports of the Syrian troops “encircling” the Al-Tanf base after securing large chunks of the Badia desert region along the Iraqi border. The base near the Al-Tanf border crossing was established by the US-led coalition to train and support anti-government militias, purportedly to fight Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) terrorists. The major IS-held areas, however, have long been cut off from Al-Tanf by Syrian government troops, and remaining terrorists have largely been cleared from the area.
The U.S. base near southern Syria’s al-Tanf border crossing was set up to train local Maghawir alThawrah, a Pentagon-backed rebel group at the al-Tanf air base, to fight Islamic State militants, but it also serves as a counterweight to Iranian activities in the war-torn country, U.S. officials and experts told VOA 26 July 2018. “Our mere presence there accomplishes that, whether it’s a goal or not,” Army Maj. Josh Jacques, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said.
The base is not meant to completely block Iran’s involvement in Syria because much of its engagement comes via airplanes. The U.S. post does, however, protect American military assets, giving the U.S. the ability to mount drone operations, conduct surveillance, and perhaps even create human intelligence networks. It also helps to reassure U.S. ally Jordan, whose officials have expressed concerns about how secure its border would be if Americans weren’t in southern Syria. “As small as that [U.S.] presence is, I think it sends a signal,” Katulis said.
The U.S. military’s primary focus across Syria has been the defeat of Islamic State fighters, and to serve that mission, U.S. soldiers at al-Tanf are training a Syrian group called Maghawir al-Thawra (MaT). While the military is not directly focused on Iran in Syria, it can still indirectly impede Iran’s “destabilizing acts” in the country, according to CENTCOM commander U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel. “There are opportunities for us to indirectly influence their [Iran’s] activities by our presence, by the pursuit of our ongoing operations, that I think disrupt and make it difficult for them to pursue their unilateral objectives,” Votel told reporters during a 19 July 2018 briefing.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior defense fellow at the Brookings Institution, says defeating IS is the “black and white” goal for American forces at al-Tanf, while all the ways that the U.S. indirectly influences Iran in Syria are “shades of gray.” He says the base also allows the U.S. to “exercise some influence on parts of the country so that Iran isn’t the only important foreign actor.... In the short term, you want to create some alternative power centers”. Once IS is defeated, however, the United States will need a long-term political transition strategy that clearly explains why the military would stay in Syria.
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