The US, which is withdrawing from Syria, may stay in a small desert base to block Iran’s influence in the region. According to a new report by Lara Seligman “Despite Trump’s original plan to withdraw all US forces, the US is considering a plan to keep troops at a remote base in southeast Syria, al-Tanf, in order to counter Iran,” she tweeted.
The Foreign Policy article notes:
“Al-Tanf is a critical element in the effort to prevent Iran from establishing a ground line of communications from Iran through Iraq through Syria to southern Lebanon in support of Lebanese Hezbollah,” a former senior US military commander is quoted.
The Tanf base (Tanaf) or Tanf garrison was created to fight ISIS near the border of Jordan and Iraq. US and Coalition forces staged there with local fighters (Maghawir al-Thawra, or MAT, as well as Shohada al-Quartayn. There are also members of Usud al-Sharqiya, Shelly Kittleson points out.) who they trained. I spoke to the Coalition about the training in 2017. While the first priority is to train these groups, “purpose number two is that these forces are from these areas,” Col. Ryan Dillon said. “ISIS exists in the middle Euphrates River Valley, [and these trained forces] would be intended to be partner forces if and when we take on ISIS in the Euphrates River Valley.”
However the base, established in 2016, had an unclear mission after the Assad regime forces outflanked it and defeated ISIS in most areas around it. Then the mission appeared to change and become about confronting Iran. In July 2018, I interviewed the US Coalition about the base.
The US had to contend with pro-regime forces probing areas around the base. A US OIG report noted “The Coalition shot down a Syrian regime fighter jet near Tabqa, and fired on pro-regime forces and shot down at least one pro-regime drone near At Tanf.” Even the US OIG noted in 2017 “However, on June 10, 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.”
Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told me in an interview in the summer of 2018. “I have two thoughts on it. It’s [Tanf] important because it is a road junction, between Iraq, Jordan and Syria. It is located out where those countries come together. I personally think the Americans won’t be able to change anything. I think this argument that they need to stay there to block an Iranian land bridge is just silly for two reasons. [First], the Iranians don’t need a land bridge. They have been doing just fine flying stuff in for a long time and they have done that for many years. The Iranian forces in Syria that are upsetting to the Israelis or US government, they came in by air from Tehran. The second point is there are other roads the Iranians can use from Albukamal and then across to Deir ez Zor. You don’t have to go through Tanf. So Personally I think it’s overrated and the US administration’s thinking they can trade withdrawing American soldiers on the ground in Tanf for concessions on Iranian forces withdrawing is going to prove mistaken.”
The small base therefore seemed to play a role in Trump’s strategy, especially as Bolton and Pompeo said they wanted to confront Iran and could use Syria to do that. General Votel visited the base in October. Then Trump said the US would withdraw from Syria on December 19. Israeli sources said they felt more alone if the US withdraw and its base did not remain astride Iran’s influence in Syria. Some have argued that Iran is building a “road to the sea” or a corridor of influence that stretches through Iraq to Syria. If that corridor is a physical one, involving driving trucks and supplies, then Tanf sits near that route.
However it appears that Israel was concerned about the withdrawal. Bloomberg reported on January 26. “Israeli and some U.S. officials argue that a continued American presence there is critical to interrupting Iran’s supply lines into Lebanon, where Hezbollah — Iran’s proxy and Israel’s enemy — has been building up its arsenal…On a recent trip to Israel and Turkey, Bolton indicated that there would be no rush to remove troops from Al-Tanf, although it wasn’t clear if he sought the kind of long-term U.S. presence there that Israel wants.”
Israel struck Iranian forces on January 20-21 and Iran fired a rocket at Israel.