In the southeastern Syrian desert, near 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 called al-Tanf, or sometimes at-Tanf, is now the last redoubt for the American forces in Syria that have occupied it since 2016. It has little to do with the war against the so-called Islamic State, the ostensible purpose of the U.S. in Syria, and far more to do with a confrontation against an entirely different adversary: Iran.
The Oct. 6 phone call between presidents Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a prelude to the betrayal of the U.S.’ Syrian Kurdish partners, prompted a highly confusing U.S. withdrawal from the Syrian northeast, one that’s been misunderstood as a full withdrawal from Syria. Instead, according to a knowledgeable U.S. official not cleared to speak with reporters, hundreds of U.S. special operators and general-purpose troops have pulled back to al-Tanf. For however long they remain 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 may be untenable—al-Tanf and the 55-kilometer “exclusion zone” surrounding it will be 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 trained for years at al-Tanf, the Syrian Arab Magahwir al-Thawra, the U.S. occasionally intercepts ISIS fighters. But officials familiar with the area note that the base is far from where the bulk of ISIS is.
Whatever military utility al-Tanf has in 2019 has more to do with a conflict with Iran. The base is positioned along a crucial 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 money along the way, has been an undeclared priority of hawkish U.S. officials in both the Obama and Trump administrations, as well as regional allies like Israel.
“Al-Tanf grew as a sop to Jordan, grew because Donald Trump delegated authorities to ground commanders, and was repurposed as an anti-Iran thing, despite the very real fact that Iranian aircraft fly over it on a routine basis,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“Al-Tanf has no obvious military purpose,” added Sam Heller of the International Crisis Group. “The real justification is, to my knowledge, denying the Syrian government and its Iranian ally access to the neighboring al-Tanf/al-Walid border crossing with Iraq. That blocks a key trade route that would better integrate Syria with its regional surroundings and help government-held Syria get on a more stable economic footing, which some in DC believe would diminish U.S. leverage to force a political resolution to the war.”
Several former Trump administration officials, including ex-national security 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 focus on combatting ISIS, but some of them have conceded the utility al-Tanf has for frustrating Iran.
“Our presence, our development of partners and relationships down here does have an indirect effect on some malign activities that Iran and their various proxies and surrogates would like to pursue down here,” the former Central Command commander, now-retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, said in Oct. 2018, the first time al-Tanf was opened to reporters.
Similarly, Trump does not share his former aides’ expansive goals in Syria. But he’s ordered a 14,000-troop escalation in the Mideast over the past six months, aimed at threatening the Iranians. Accordingly, it’s conspicuous that al-Tanf is what remains of the U.S. in Syria.
“It is everything wrong with Trump’s war in Syria,” said Stein. “The fact that it will be the last American enclave in Syria is more evidence of how Iran myopia has poisoned U.S. objectives in the region.
It’s also been a scene of conflict. As Syrian government forces advanced on southeastern Syria, the U.S. and Russia negotiated the “exclusion zone” near al-Tanf to keep everyone’s armies separate. That didn’t stop U.S. warplanes from firing on an Iranian convoy near the base last September, killing six Syrians and an Iranian. These days, however, sources familiar with the area say the Iranian-controlled forces typically just route around the exclusion zone, rendering the base dubiously effective at its ancillary, undeclared mission.
Al-Tanf is just a few miles away from the squalor of a refugee camp called Rukban, where at least 10,000 people live without access to running water and children die from exposure. The U.S. is not interested in their fate. At the Aspen Security Forum in the summer, Amb. Jim Jeffrey, one of the Trump administration’s most senior Syria policymakers, denied responsibility for Rukban. Administering humanitarian aid from al-Tanf, he argued, would risk making the U.S. presence look like it would last “forever.”
But neither mission creep, strategic incoherence, inhumanity, nor disutility has ever been sufficient to stop a drifting U.S. war. Al-Tanf is a survivor. It’s 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,” said Heller, “it's possible the U.S. presence could persist indefinitely.”
U.S. officials insist there will still be surveillance flights over Syria, so as to monitor whatever remains of the ISIS prisons the Kurds maintained before Turkey’s incursion. For the time being, those flights are focused on protecting U.S. troops from surprise attack. Whatever overflight the U.S. stages from al-Tanf has to operate in the collapsing window of Syrian airspace not controlled by Syrian, Russian, and Turkish forces.
It’s unclear how much there will be. Administration officials and senior military officers are piecing together a post-drawdown Syria policy that can keep pace with—and be undone by—presidential tweets.
On a trip to the Middle East that began this weekend, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was unsure whether the U.S. will stage anti-ISIS raids or strikes in Syria from Iraq, where most of the drawdown forces are headed, pending discussion with regional allies. On Monday, after Trump tweeted that U.S. forces have “secured the oil” in northeastern Syria, Esper revealed that now the Pentagon is considering additional plans to do just that, though securing oil and not human beings may not go over well with incensed Kurds who are pelting U.S. convoys with stones and fruit, to say 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, however much it calls into question the logic of this residual American presence. “Far from being a feather in the cap of American power, it is a dumb waste of resources,” Stein said, “in need of constant protection from hostile action, and it exists only because the Trump administration has convinced itself that [its policy] is something other than a set of talking points designed to mask the aim of collapsing the Islamic Republic.”