A little-known U.S. military base in southeastern Syria is likely to become the focal point of the Trump Administration’s intervention in the war-torn country. Hugging the borders of Jordan and Iraq, the US ‘outpost’ at al-Tanf was officially established to interrupt Daesh activities, but many of its military actions have been aimed against Syrian regime forces, regime-backed militias, and other armed groups supported by Iran.
The U.S.’ base at al-Tanf stands directly in the way of the ‘Shiite Crescent’ of Iran, Syria, and Lebanon where Iranian-backed Hezbollah operates. If Iran, Syria and Lebanon are able to connect via inroads through southeastern Syria and act with a cohesive military and political agenda, the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East could shift drastically, threatening U.S.’ interests in the region.
Tensions came to a head in June of this year, when an Iranian drone approached the base and was shot down, ignoring warnings from the U.S. to halt and turn back. A few weeks before that, a pro-regime convoy advanced into the defensive radius near the U.S.’ al-Tanf base before being struck. These moves were strategic infringements against the US base by the Syrian regime and affiliated Shiite militias, but their relative importance to the war were drastically underreported.
Attention instead went to continued coverage of Trump’s ineffectual bombing of a Syrian air base after Assad reportedly used chlorine gas to massacre civilians in Aleppo, which crossed a supposed ‘red line’ with Trump—the same red line that former President Obama established but failed to act on when Assad previously used chemical weapons against civilians in 2013.
Though Trump’s strikes on the airbase captured headlines and represented the U.S. finally “doing something” even if it had no immediate strategic value, news publications and analysts should have instead focused on the confrontations around al-Tanf to see what the future of the Syrian civil war will look like.
The anti-regime opposition appears to be crumbling to the benefit to the Syrian regime and Shiite militias. As Trump defunds the opposition groups Obama worked to support, HTS and other anti-Assad groups are defecting and cannibalizing themselves at the same time as Daesh continues to lose territory with its state-building experiment coming to an end.
The emergent victor is the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran, with no opposition faction strong enough to contest its hold on Syria. Even Trump himself has seemingly abandoned any concerted effort at meaningful regime change or even reform in Syria, urging future plans for peace in Syria to include Assad.
At the same time, U.S. is becoming more isolated and powerless in southeastern Syria. Fighters and Commanders from groups like Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra, previously backed and trained by the US at al-Tanf are defecting to the Syrian regime, reportedly choosing to join Assad rather than eventually face him. Nick Heras, a fellow at the Center for New American Security, told CNN that “[s]ome of the Syrian fighters at the Tanf garrison have decided to cut the best deal with Assad now, and be part of his armies, rather than to fight with the Americans, be labeled as 'traitors,' by the regime, and then have to deal with Assad's wrath."
On top of this Syrian regime fighters and militias are working with Russian air support to take the rest of Deir Ezzor from Daesh, in a new campaign that further surrounds and neutralizes any capacity for the Tanf base to be effective in mounting operations or training fighters. Meanwhile, Iraqi militias are working towards their way toward Tanf on its eastern side, which would effectively surround al-Tanf.
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The Tanf military base, with only 100-150 US soldiers, will have no power to prevent Iranian and Iraqi militias from linking up with the Syrian regime via roads from Baghdad to Damascus and ultimately to Lebanon, and President Trump ordering more boots on the ground in southern Syria would risk a massive escalation in the already-war-torn country. U.S. officials are already expressing concern that the U.S. could be forced out since they are operating within Syrian sovereignty.
President Trump, for all his boasting and bravado, has found himself hopelessly surrounded and entangled in a new type of war in Syria, and there appears to be no plan for the U.S. to protect its assets and allies in the southeastern region against the coalescing Shiite regimes that have already begun to harass US and Coalition forces around the country.
The U.S. is losing any grasp it had in controlling the situation in Syria and the war is now poised to evolve into a phase that the U.S. is woefully underprepared to cope with. Once nascent rebel factions are neutralized and Daesh is routed from the region, The U.S., Israel, Jordan and others who oppose the Shiite Crescent’s formation, will have to face a much more powerful Iran that has not been stopped despite years of diplomatic negotiations seeking to limit its regional power.
The world watched in horror as President Trump botched international crises such as the recent North Korean nuclear scare. But the international community may wax nostalgic for the Kim Jong Un-Trump showdown once Trump finds a more potent and formidable adversary in Iran.
By: Ty Joplin
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