In the southeastern Syrian desert, close to the Jordan and Iraq borders, far from the ruins of the Caliphate or the carnage of the Turkish invasion, lies the terminal phase of a U.S. war.
A dusty garrison outpost referred to as al-Tanf, or from time to time at-Tanf, is now the final redoubt for the American forces in Syria that have occupied it given that 2016. It has small to do with the war against the so-referred to as Islamic State, the ostensible goal of the U.S. in Syria, and far additional to do with a confrontation against an totally distinct adversary: Iran.
The Oct. six telephone get in touch with among presidents Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a prelude to the betrayal of the U.S.’ Syrian Kurdish partners, prompted a hugely confusing U.S. withdrawal from the Syrian northeast, a single that is been misunderstood as a complete withdrawal from Syria. Alternatively, according to a knowledgeable U.S. official not cleared to speak with reporters, hundreds of U.S. specific operators and common-goal troops have pulled back to al-Tanf. For on the other hand lengthy they stay in Syria – now that the Turks have invaded and the Kurds have turned to the Syrian government and its Russian patrons for protection, the U.S. presence could be untenable—al-Tanf and the 55-kilometer “exclusion zone” surrounding it will be exactly where they operate.
In a coda for the war, the missions U.S. forces can execute from al-Tanf are unclear. Along with a proxy force the U.S. has educated for years at al-Tanf, the Syrian Arab Magahwir al-Thawra, the U.S. sometimes intercepts ISIS fighters. But officials familiar with the location note that the base is far from exactly where the bulk of ISIS is.
What ever military utility al-Tanf has in 2019 has additional to do with a conflict with Iran. The base is positioned along a vital highway stretching east into Iraq, and onward to Iran, and west toward Damascus. Thwarting Iran and its proxies from accessing the Mediterranean coast, bringing weapons and funds along the way, has been an undeclared priority of hawkish U.S. officials in each the Obama and Trump administrations, as properly as regional allies like Israel.
“Al-Tanf grew as a sop to Jordan, grew due to the fact Donald Trump delegated authorities to ground commanders, and was repurposed as an anti-Iran issue, in spite of the pretty true reality that Iranian aircraft fly more than it on a routine basis,” mentioned Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East system at the Foreign Policy Study Institute.
“Al-Tanf has no clear military goal,” added Sam Heller of the International Crisis Group. “The true justification is, to my know-how, denying the Syrian government and its Iranian ally access to the neighboring al-Tanf/al-Walid border crossing with Iraq. That blocks a crucial trade route that would much better integrate Syria with its regional surroundings and aid government-held Syria get on a additional steady financial footing, which some in DC think would diminish U.S. leverage to force a political resolution to the war.”
Various former Trump administration officials, such as ex-national safety adviser John Bolton and cashiered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have wanted to use the U.S. presence in Syria to confront Iran. That has discomfited Pentagon officials who wanted to concentrate on combatting ISIS, but some of them have conceded the utility al-Tanf has for frustrating Iran.
“Our presence, our improvement of partners and relationships down right here does have an indirect impact on some malign activities that Iran and their a variety of proxies and surrogates would like to pursue down right here,” the former Central Command commander, now-retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, mentioned in Oct. 2018, the initially time al-Tanf was opened to reporters.
Similarly, Trump does not share his former aides’ expansive objectives in Syria. But he’s ordered a 14,000-troop escalation in the Mideast more than the previous six months, aimed at threatening the Iranians. Accordingly, it is conspicuous that al-Tanf is what remains of the U.S. in Syria.
“It is almost everything incorrect with Trump’s war in Syria,” mentioned Stein. “The reality that it will be the final American enclave in Syria is additional proof of how Iran myopia has poisoned U.S. objectives in the area.
It is also been a scene of conflict. As Syrian government forces sophisticated on southeastern Syria, the U.S. and Russia negotiated the “exclusion zone” close to al-Tanf to maintain everyone’s armies separate. That didn’t quit U.S. warplanes from fired on an Iranian convoy close to the base final September, killing six Syrians and an Iranian. These days, on the other hand, sources familiar with the location say the Iranian-controlled forces normally just route about the exclusion zone, rendering the base dubiously successful at its ancillary, undeclared mission.
Al-Tanf is just a couple of miles away from the squalor of a refugee camp referred to as Rukban, exactly where at least 10,000 folks reside with out access to operating water and kids die from exposure. The U.S. is not interested in their fate. At the Aspen Safety Forum in the summer season, Amb. Jim Jeffrey, a single of the Trump administration’s seniormost Syria policymakers, declaimed duty for Rukban. Administering humanitarian help from al-Tanf, he argued, would threat generating the U.S. presence appear like it would final “forever.”
But neither mission creep, strategic incoherence, inhumanity nor disutility has ever been adequate to quit a drifting U.S. war. Al-Tanf is a survivor. It is endured earlier rumors of closure and Russian threats to assault it. “Despite the dubious rationale for remaining in al-Tanf, and the resource drain of securing the base,” mentioned Heller, “it’s doable the U.S. presence could persist indefinitely.”
U.S. officials insist there will still be surveillance flights over Syria, so as to monitor what ever remains of the ISIS prisons the Kurds maintained prior to Turkey’s incursion. For the time becoming, these flights are focused on defending U.S. troops from surprise attack. What ever overflight the U.S. stages from al-Tanf has to operate in the collapsing window of Syrian airspace uncontrolled by Syrian, Russian, and Turkish forces.
It is unclear how a lot there will be. Administration officials and senior military officers are piecing with each other a post-drawdown Syria policy that can maintain pace with—and be undone by—presidential tweets.
On a trip to the Middle East that started this weekend, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was unsure irrespective of whether the U.S. will stage anti-ISIS raids or strikes in Syria from Iraq, exactly where most of the drawdown forces are headed, pending discussion with regional allies. On Monday, following Trump tweeted that U.S. forces have “secured the oil” in northeastern Syria, Esper revealed that now the Pentagon is thinking about more plans to do just that – although securing oil and not human beings could not go more than properly with incensed Kurds who are pelting U.S. convoys with stones and fruit, to say absolutely nothing of the U.S. adversaries filling the void left behind by the U.S. departure.
For now, what remains for the U.S. is al-Tanf, on the other hand a lot it calls into query the logic of this residual American presence. “Far from becoming a feather in the cap of American energy, it is a dumb waste of sources,” Stein mentioned, “in need to have of continuous protection from hostile action, and it exists only due to the fact the Trump administration has convinced itself that [its policy] is one thing other than a set of speaking points developed to mask the aim of collapsing the Islamic Republic.”
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