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Flashpoint / Global

Al-Tanf, Syria

I. Why it Matters

Located in Syria on the Iraqi border and within miles of the Jordanian border, the U.S. garrison at al-Tanf has, since 2016, served as a launching point for counter-ISIS operations and training for Syrian opposition factions fighting the jihadist group. Iranian and Iran-backed forces are deployed in close proximity to the al-Tanf desert outpost, which sits on the strategically significant Baghdad-Damascus highway. U.S. forces in al-Tanf established a 55-km de-confliction zone, beyond which lie an array of forces described as either “pro-regime” or “Iran-backed” that have set up checkpoints in the area. Several incidents in recent months underscore al-Tanf’s potential as a flashpoint between U.S. and Iranian and/or Iran-backed forces.

II. Recent Developments

  • 7 November 2019
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  • 7 November 2019
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  • 1 November 2019
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  • 30 October 2019
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  • 28 October 2019
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  • 25 October 2019
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  • 26 September 2019
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  • 26 September 2019
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  • 18 September 2019
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  • 16 September 2019
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  • 11 June 2019
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  • 31 May 2019
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  • 29 May 2019
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  • 22 May 2019
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  • 14 May 2019
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  • 27 April 2019
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  • 16 April 2019
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  • 4 April 2019
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  • 25 March 2019
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  • 22 March 2019
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  • 20 March 2019
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  • 18 March 2019
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  • 17 March 2019
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  • 7 March 2019
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  • 5 March 2019
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  • 2 March 2019
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  • 27 February 2019
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  • 26 February 2019
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  • 25 February 2019
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  • 23 February 2019
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  • 22 February 2019
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  • 21 February 2019
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  • 14 February 2019
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  • 13 February 2019
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  • 6 February 2019
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  • 6 February 2019
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  • 4 February 2019
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  • 16 January 2019
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  • 14 January 2019
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  • 13 January 2019
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  • 13 January 2019
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  • 12 January 2019
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  • 10 January 2019
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  • 7 January 2019
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  • 6 January 2019
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  • 4 January 2019
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  • 3 January 2019
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  • 2 January 2019
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  • 31 December 2018
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  • 30 December 2018
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  • 26 December 2018
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  • 24 December 2018
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  • 24 December 2018
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  • 23 December 2018
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  • 22 December 2018
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  • 22 December 2018
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  • 20 December 2018
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  • 20 December 2018
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  • 19 December 2018
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  • 19 December 2018
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  • 11 December 2018
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  • 22 November 2018
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  • 14 November 2018
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  • 7 November 2018
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  • 29 October 2018
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  • 22 October 2018
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  • 16 October 2018
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  • 30 September 2018
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  • 27 September 2018
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  • 13 September 2018
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  • 7 September 2018
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  • 7 September 2018
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  • 6 September 2018
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  • 6 September 2018
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  • 4 September 2018
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  • 3 September 2018
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  • 28 August 2018
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  • 26 August 2018
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  • 23 August 2018
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  • 22 August 2018
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  • 21 August 2018
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  • 9 August 2018
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  • 2 August 2018
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  • 17 July 2018
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  • 16 July 2018
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  • 15 July 2018
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  • 13 July 2018
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  • 10 July 2018
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  • 10 July 2018
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  • 1 July 2018
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  • 21 June 2018
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  • 18 June 2018
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  • 14 June 2018
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  • 2 June 2018
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  • 23 May 2018
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  • 15 April 2018
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  • 14 April 2018
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  • 12 April 2018
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  • 4 April 2018
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  • 29 March 2018
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  • 29 March 2018
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  • 2 March 2018
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  • 1 March 2018
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  • 19 February 2018
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  • 18 January 2018
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  • 11 January 2018
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  • 26 December 2017
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  • 21 December 2017
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  • 13 December 2017
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  • 20 November 2017
    Fighters from MaT, a U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group. 19 October 2017 MaT TWITTER
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  • 16 November 2017
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  • 4 October 2017
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  • 7 August 2017
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  • 14 June 2017
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  • 6 June 2017
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  • 18 May 2017
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III. Background

As ISIS’s territorial control in Syria and Iraq shrinks, territories previously held by the group leave a vacuum for conquering parties to further their own influence and agendas. This includes both the U.S., which has been leading a counter-ISIS campaign under the framework of Operation Inherent Resolve, and Iran, which has deployed its own forces and backed non-Iranian militias against ISIS and anti-Assad forces in Syria. The capture and execution by ISIS of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard near al-Tanf in August 2017 confirms an Iranian presence on the ground there, though its extent is difficult to ascertain.

Crowds gather in Isfahan for funeral of an IRGC Soldier killed by ISIS in Syria, 28 September 2017 TASNIM

The view from Washington is that Iran’s strategic goal is to establish an east-west land corridor stretching from Iran to Lebanon as a back-up to the existing air corridor that serves as an Iranian arms supply channel to Hizbollah; control of al-Tanf would facilitate this objective.

The view from Tehran is that the U.S. is seeking to develop a north-south corridor in eastern Syria, stretching from the Turkish to the Jordanian border and controlled by Syrian Kurdish parties and other U.S.-backed forces, to curtail Iran’s access to its allies and proxies in the Levant.

IV. Analysis

Limited Response to Douma. On the evening of 7 April 2018, the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma was subjected to an apparent chemical weapons attack. Retaliatory military strikes by the U.S. and its Western allies grew increasingly likely after Russia and the P3 - the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France - failed to agree on a mechanism at the Security Council, and were launched against targets in Damascus and Homs in the early hours of 14 April (Syrian time). President Trump declared that "the purpose of our action... is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons", while the secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, described the operation as "a one-time shot". By keeping the strikes limited in duration and narrow in purpose, the U.S. and its allies likely wanted to avoid an unintended escalation; Russian officials confirmed that their air defences in Syria were not engaged during the operation. However, President Trump left open the possibility of future action, stating that "the combined American, British and French response to these atrocities will integrate all instruments of our national power: military, economic and diplomatic. We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents". 

Pentagon briefing slide on U.S./France/UK strikes in Syria, 14 April 2018 U.S. Dept of Defense Twitter

The risk is that the presence in close quarters of U.S. and Iranian as well as Iran-backed forces in eastern Syria can lead to an accidental or deliberate clash, in turn raising the risk of direct engagement between Iranian and U.S. forces. Incidents in and around al-Tanf appeared to have ebbed by mid-2017. As one top U.S. official remarked in late August, “the situation [there] is stable. Every – all parties understand, almost … the rules of the game, that’s exactly what we had wanted to be the case”.