Flashpoint / Global 18 June 2018 Al-Tanf, Syria Share Facebook Twitter Email Back To Map 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 18 June 2018 A U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group captured over $1 million worth of drugs from ISIS inside the al-Tanf de-confliction zone. View More 14 June 2018 Bashar Assad stated that "the Americans say they are ready [to leave Tanf], but everyone knows that the Americans are historically professional liars in politics... we have to wait and see". View More 2 June 2018 A senior Syrian official cautioned against accepting "statements on an agreement about the south of Syria unless the U.S. withdraws its forces from the al-Tanf area". View More 23 May 2018 A senior Syrian diplomat asserted that "whether Iranian forces or Hizbollah withdraw or stay in Syria is not up for discussion". View More 15 April 2018 President Rouhani discussed the U.S.-led strikes on Syria with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, telling Putin that the "attack on Syria shows that we are facing new problems and issues in the final fight against terrorism in Syria, and we should have more consultation and cooperation". View More 14 April 2018 Responding to the suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma on 7 April, the U.S., the United Kingdom and France struck targets in Damascus and Homs that the Pentagon characterized as "Syrian chemical weapons infrastructure". According to President Trump, "the purpose of our actions...is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons". View More 12 April 2018 Commenting on the possibility of U.S. strikes in Syria, Russia's envoy to the UN asserted that "the danger of escalation is higher than simply Syria because our military are there... so the situation is very dangerous". View More 4 April 2018 The White House declared itself "committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated", adding that the U.S. "will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans". View More 29 March 2018 The Russian foreign ministry expressed its concern over "reports... about the arrival of heavy weapons in the zone around al-Tanf". View More 29 March 2018 President Trump declared that "we're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We'll be coming out of Syria... very soon". View More 2 March 2018 Russia's foreign ministry argued that "the U.S. military's illegal presence near al-Tanf and its blocking of the important transport link between Damascus and Baghdad is a blatant violation of Syria's sovereignty". View More 1 March 2018 Iranian media reported claims that the U.S. had dispatched 600 soldiers to al-Tanf View More 19 February 2018 Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, declared that "the unilateral steps made by the U.S., which declared the 55-km area near al-Tanf its zone if influence is something we did not agree on". Claiming that the area is used by jihadists to "recover moral and physical strength" and as a launching area for operations elsewhere, Lavrov urged that the "zone must be closed immediately". View More 18 January 2018 Following U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson's 17 January speech on Syria policy, the Syrian government maintained "that a U.S. military presence in Syria was illegitimate... and an aggression on Syria's national sovereignty". View More 11 January 2018 In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a top state department official, David Satterfield, asserted that the U.S. "seek[s] to not only diminish Iranian foreign influence in Syria generally, but to protect our allies from the very real threat Hizbollah poses in southwest Syria to our allies". View More 26 December 2017 The chief of the Russian military’s general staff, Valery Gerasimov, claimed that the U.S. base at al-Tanf was being used to train approximately 350 fighters who “are practically Islamic State”. Gerasimov added that U.S. justifications for maintaining the garrison at al-Tanf were “ambiguous”. View More 21 December 2017 The U.S. special presidential envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, declared that “we are present at Tanf, and we’re going to be present at Tanf to make sure ISIS cannot return and also to manage [the] difficult humanitarian situation” at the Rukban camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border. View More 13 December 2017 Twenty ISIS fighters were killed in a clash with the U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group Maghawir a-Thawra (MaT) near al-Tanf. An unspecified number were detained. The U.S.-led coalition supported MaT forces during the engagement. View More 20 November 2017 U.S. Central Command confirmed that 180 fighters in the MaT faction, a U.S. backed Syrian rebel group that guards the al-Tanf base, were relieved from duty having “completed their military service”, reducing MaT’s size to between 40 and 60 fighters. Fighters from MaT, a U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group. 19 October 2017 MaT TWITTER View More 16 November 2017 U.S.-backed Syrian opposition forces clashed with ISIS forces that entered into the no-go zone. View More 4 October 2017 Forces allied with the Syrian regime breached the de-confliction zone. View More 7 August 2017 A commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units said an attack on an Iran-backed Iraqi militia deployed in Syria, the Sayyad al-Shuhada Brigades, near al-Tanf killed an estimated 30 of its fighters; ISIS claimed responsibility, but Sayyad al-Shuhada accused the U.S. of involvement. U.S. forces denied any role in the incident. View More 14 June 2017 Reuters reported that the U.S. strengthened its presence in al-Tanf in mid-June 2017, including through the deployment of high mobility artillery rocket systems, with an estimated range of up to 300km. View More 6 June 2017 U.S.-led forces announced that they had struck “pro-[Syrian] regime” troops and vehicles in response to the latter’s movement into the de-confliction zone. That month also saw multiple instances of drones – Iranian-made Shahed 129s, possibly controlled by Iran’s IRGC – shot down by U.S. forces close to the garrison. View More 18 May 2017 The U.S. conducted airstrikes against a pro-regime convoy moving in the direction of the garrison. Iranian officials told Crisis Group that the incident was the result of confusion about the nature of the de-confliction zone, which they said they believed was only a no-fly zone; speaking privately, some U.S. officials confirmed to Crisis Group that there had been a misunderstanding. View More 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”. Yet the October incident underscores the fluid situation and continued potential for clashes between U.S. and pro-Syrian regime forces. In other words, “stability” and “knowing the rules of the game” does not mean that the risks have been entirely eliminated. A deliberate clash remains unlikely: Iranian/Iran-backed forces probably will not make a direct assault on the garrison but engage in probing operations, while U.S. forces, whose mission is centred on ISIS, are not expected to actively seek out military engagements with pro-Syrian regime forces. The situation could become more volatile once ISIS loses what remains of its territory inside Syria; this will complicate U.S. political and legal justifications for its continued presence at al-Tanf, which at least some officials say is required to blunt Iranian influence and exert leverage on Damascus, while the Syrian regime and its allies over time could seek ways – diplomatic or military – to push for a U.S. withdrawal from the relatively isolated base. A wildcard factor is ISIS: its fighters, who continue to be present in the area around al-Tanf (even if they do not control territory), may attack either the U.S.-led coalition or Iran-backed forces, raising the possibility of unintended engagement between the other two, if there is misidentification. The 16 November clash highlights ISIS’s ongoing capacity to operate in the al-Tanf area and target U.S. and U.S.-backed forces. Moreover, the anti-ISIS campaign can change operational dynamics and movement along the border regions in the coming months, especially in the context of a race for the spoils. U.S. Forces at al-Tanf, 3 December 2017 UNITED STATES ARMY'S INSTAGRAM V. Scenarios and Recommendations Striking Back? While the U.S.-led strikes on 14 April (Syrian time) were, according to the Pentagon, limited to Syrian chemical facilities, any military action in Syria inevitably presents significant risks of unintended escalation, especially given deepened involvement by several foreign actors. Moscow and Tehran both condemned the operation, with a senior Russian diplomat warning that "such actions will not be left without consequences". If the Syrian government or its backers retaliate, the U.S. and its allies may not be the direct target. The U.S. and its allies are unlikely to be the only or even main targets of retaliation by the Syrian government and its backers. Military action could provoke intensified bombing by the Syrian government and Russia against opposition-held areas. It could also jeopardise local ceasefire arrangements, including the tenuous “de-escalation” in southwestern Syria jointly negotiated by the U.S., Russia, and Jordan. A Direct Confrontation Could Occur. Now that ISIS’s territorial control is all but eliminated, attention among most relevant actors will shift more markedly toward means of improving the balance of power on the ground in their favour, so as to strengthen military positioning and negotiating leverage. Iranian forces and their allies might seek to target U.S. forces in and around al-Tanf in retaliation against U.S. actions elsewhere or in an effort to drive the U.S. out of Syria. There is no clear military path to the latter objective, as the U.S. can continue to destroy forces that cross into exclusion zone for the foreseeable future. Yet this could strengthen more hawkish elements in Washington and invite the U.S. to take retaliatory measures of its own, thus starting an escalatory spiral. To avoid unintended clashes and contain incidents, Russia and the U.S. need to redress the shortcomings of their hotline, to ensure it allows for time-sensitive communication, prevents miscommunication and stops future incidents, such as a breach of the de-confliction zone, from escalating. The shooting down of the Shahed 129 drone in June demonstrated this problem, as Pentagon officials acknowledged that the situation evolved too rapidly to communicate with their Russian counterparts. The communications channel seems to have performed more effectively in the 4 October incident, and again during the 16 November incident with ISIS forces. U.S. and Russian officials should assess whether it is possible to further reduce hotline response times and ensure timely and accurate exchanges of information. Bracket Al-Tanf: The utility of rebels based at al-Tanf in the anti-ISIS effort has declined, and the U.S. doesn’t currently have any other strategic use for them -- especially because it also has seemingly ended its investment in armed resistance against the Syrian regime. This does marginally decrease U.S. incentive to stay in al-Tanf, but probably not to a point where they are prepared to withdraw unilaterally and cede its control to Iran and its allies. Until the fate of the base is determined in broader negotiations between major parties over Syria’s future or in bilateral arrangements between the U.S. and Russia, Iranian and Iran-backed forces should refrain from breaching the 55-km cordon around the garrison in the air or on the ground.