Flashpoint / Global 16 April 2019 Al-Tanf, Syria Share Facebook Twitter Email Print 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 16 April 2019 Foreign Minister Javad Zarif traveled to Damascus for meetings with President Assad and other senior Syrian officials. View More 4 April 2019 A senior Syrian official asserted that "Syria will liberate the occupied Golan by all means and all choices are on the table". He also argued that "the U.S. administration lies with regard to pulling out its troops, which are illegitimately deployed in Syria, and it isn't our duty to teach them to be honest". View More 25 March 2019 The U.S. added "dozens of new vessels involved in illicit oil shipments" from Iran to Syria in an update to a November 2018 advisory. A senior Treasury Department official noted that "the U.S. has made it clear to the maritime shipping community that we will not tolerate the use of petroleum as a mechanism to finance rogue regimes in Iran and Syria", adding that "as Iran and Syria attempt to adapt their illicit tactics and shift to new vessels, we will continue to provide these updates to the shipping community". View More 22 March 2019 The U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, noted that "we know historically that Iran has given Hizbollah an average of $700 million a year... we have seen evidence of the impact [of U.S. sanctions] when the leader of Hizbollah makes a public appeal for charity. It speaks for itself. This is the kind of impact that we want". He added that "we know that we have denied the [Iranian] regime even in the short amount of time [since sanctions came into effect] many billions of dollars in revenue", and underscored that the U.S. held "talks with any government where we see sanctions violations or even potential sanctions violations". Hook went on to underscore that "we are... committed to ensuring that troops under Iranian command are out of Syria", and suggested Iran had a "vastly-under reported role in Yemen" despite having "no legitimate interest" in the country. "Giving [Iran] a foothold in Yemen", Hook argued, "allows them to threaten two straits of international commerce". View More 20 March 2019 President Trump indicated that "in Syria we're leaving 200 people there and 200 people in another place in Syria, closer to Israel, for a period of time". He also predicted that remaining ISIS-held territory "will be gone by tonight". View More 18 March 2019 Iran's military chief of staff met with his opposite numbers from Syria and Iraq, pledging that "measures taken by the three countries will continue until terrorists are fully defeated". He also met with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus. View More 17 March 2019 During a trip to Syria, Iran's military chief of staff argued that "all foreign troops who are present in Syria without coordinating with the Syrian government will have to leave the country sooner or later". View More 7 March 2019 CENTCOM commander Joseph Votel posited that "the U.S. withdrawal from Syria represents the most dynamic shift in the environment since ISIS lost its ability to govern major population centres and fight as a conventional force and could trigger a renewed race for influence, control, and for some, survival". He further stated that "Israel's legitimate concerns about Iran's increasingly provocative actions in Syria, particularly the transshipment of advanced weapons systems into and through Syria, are driving increasingly forward-leaning Israeli military actions". View More 5 March 2019 President Trump replied to a 22 February letter from members of Congress calling for "a small American stabilising force in Syria" by bracketing a paragraph about ensuring "that ISIS never returns, that Iran is not emboldened" and noting "I agree 100 per cent - all is being done". View More 2 March 2019 President Trump assessed that "as of probably today or tomorrow, we will actually have 100 per cent of the [ISIS] caliphate in Syria... And we'll leave a small group of guys and gals. But we want to bring our people back home". View More 27 February 2019 Qods force commander Soleimani described Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's 25 February trip to Tehran as a "celebration of victory", adding that "you saw how Assad hugged the [Supreme] Leader with love, like a son who has been departed from his father. This is not a minor thing". Soleimani also assessed that "the most secure borders of our country is the common border with Iraq, and our friends are ruling the country". View More 26 February 2019 President Rouhani maintained that "we have achieved good victories in the political and international stages, and we have done great things in the region, parts of which were on the shoulders of the IRGC, the foreign ministry and the economic sectors". He added that the 25 February visit of President Bashar al-Assad "indicates that if we stand by each other, we will be successful". View More 25 February 2019 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad traveled to Tehran for meetings with senior Iranian officials. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei asserted that "Syria... managed to stand strong against a big coalition of the U.S., Europe and their allies in the region and victoriously come out of it". He also warned that "the question of a buffer zone in Syria that the Americans are trying to create is one of their dangerous plots that must be firmly rejected and opposed". "Iran and Syria", Khamenei added, "are strategic allies and the identity and power of Resistance depends on their continuous and strategic alliance, because of which the enemies will not be able to put their plans into action". President Rouhani pledged that "Iran will stand by the Syria government and people like before". View More 23 February 2019 Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary, Ali Shamkhani, maintained that "we will stay in Syria and fight against terrorism as long as the legitimate Syrian government would make such requests". Addressing Israel's airstrikes, Shamkhani posited that "Israel is clearly taking steps to serve the interests of terrorists and to counter the Syrian government and army". "We severely responded to the [Israeli] attack on T4 and dealt a heavy blow to them", Shamkhani remarked. "We have made arrangements to protect our red line in the area of human casualties caused by any act of aggression and invasion". He also predicted that "we will soon witness a major upheaval in upgrading the deterrent power of resistance in Syria. I believe that the Zionist regime's officials, particularly their military and intelligence officials, are well aware of this issue. The method for tackling their Zionist regime's attacks on Syria and the axis of resistance in 2019 will be significantly different from the combat methods in the past". "We have accomplished more than 90 per cent of our objectives [in Syria]", Shamkhani maintained. "Thus, the Israeli punitive strikes have had no strategic impact and the resistance has pressed ahead with its activities". View More 22 February 2019 A U.S. official indicated that that approximately 200 U.S. troops would remain deployed at the al-Tanf garrison even as the U.S. proceeded to significantly reduce its military presence across Syria. View More 21 February 2019 The White House announced that following the withdrawal of U.S. forces, "a small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time". However, the following day media reports clarified that the figure may actually be 400. View More 14 February 2019 President Rouhani met with his Turkish and Russian counterparts for discussions on Syria. In a press conference, he suggested that "if the U.S. retreats its forces from Syria, based on our intelligence we know that they will continue to meddle in Syria". Rouhani also posited that "illegal interference in Syria by the Zionist regime [i.e. Israel] is a source of concern for the people of this country and other nations in the region. [The] Israelis bomb anywhere in the region and fly on Lebanese and Syrian soil whenever they wish, and unfortunately, the UN and global authorities are silent about these continued acts of aggression in Syria". View More 13 February 2019 Secretary Pompeo, in Warsaw for the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East, described the proceedings as "absolutely historic... the first time in a quarter of a century that you had the prime minister of Israel in the same room talking about threats in the Middle East with senior Arab leaders from all across the Middle East". "This gathering is certainly about Middle East peace and stability," he explained. "You can't talk about that without talking about the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran, whether it's Hizbollah, Hamas, the Houthis - I call them the three H's - whether it's their work against the Iraqi government... whether it's what they're doing in Syria today". Pompeo also remarked that "we don't expect the Iranian people to support the U.S. We expect them to take care of their own country... we want the Iranian people to have the opportunity to live in a prosperous, peaceful society and one that is controlled by their desires, their wishes. And if we can get that, I am very confident that these behaviours that we see in Iran will change dramatically". On Yemen, Pompeo stressed that "we have two problems - three problems really. The first problem is al-Qaeda... the second problem is Iran continuing to fund the Huthis... it provides missiles to the Huthis that they launch into airports in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates". View More 6 February 2019 In remarks to a ministerial meeting of the counter-ISIS coalition, President Trump indicated that "the U.S. military, our Coalition partners and the Syrian Democratic Forces have liberated virtually all of the territory previously held by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It should be formally announced sometime probably next week that we will have 100 per cent of the caliphate". He went on to state that "as countries in the region and across our Coalition step up their commitments, as we continue to destroy the remnants - that's all they have, remnants. But remnants can be very dangerous". View More 6 February 2019 In remarks to a ministerial meeting of the counter-ISIS coalition, Secretary Pompeo maintained that "the drawdown of [U.S.] troops [from Syria] is essentially a tactical change - it is not a change in the mission. It does not change the structure, design or authorities on which the campaign has been based". Pompeo added that "in addition to this coalition's laser-like focus on defeating ISIS, we're committed to the following series of things. First, a political solution in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The removal of all Iranian-led forces from Syria". View More 4 February 2019 Ahead of a ministerial meeting of the counter-ISIS coalition, a senior U.S. official noted that "we're entering a very critical phase in which we need to expand the diplomatic cooperation to assist the populations in Iraq and north-eastern Syria recover from ISIS' rule but also maintaining significant pressure on ISIS as it increasingly turns to insurgent tactics to destabilise both north-eastern Syria and Iraq". Another official further indicated that "our three top priorities [in Syria]... continue to be to secure an enduring defeat of ISIS, to see the exit of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria and to reach a political settlement of the conflicts under UN Security Council Resolution 2254". A third diplomat asserted that "we can't turn a blind eye towards the malign activities of Iran throughout the region", adding that "we expect Iran to fully respect the sovereignty of Iraq and other regional states, to cease their destabilising activities and to refrain from actions that enflame sectarian tensions". View More 16 January 2019 The IRGC's commander warned Israel to "fear the day when Iranian precision missiles hit you and take revenge of all the blood of oppressed Muslims which you have shed". "Iran will keep in Syria all the military and revolutionary advisors, and equipment and weapons which aim to train and empower Islamic resistance forces and support oppressed people of the country", he pledged, adding that "we do not take into account your ridiculous threats. You know that if we have chosen to wait against your hostile measures, some considerations lie behind it". In related comments, Iran's diplomatic spokesperson advised Prime Minister Netanyahu to "know your limits". View More 14 January 2019 A senior Iranian military official indicated that "as far as terrorists are in Syria and the country asks help from Tehran, Iran will continue its advisory presence in Syria". View More 13 January 2019 Via Twitter, President Trump indicated the U.S. was "starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions. [We] will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20-mile safe zone..." He went on to add that "[we] do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey. Russia, Iran and Syria have been the biggest beneficiaries of the long-term U.S. policy of destroying ISIS in Syria - natural enemies". View More 13 January 2019 Secretary Pompeo affirmed that "the roughly 2,000 uniformed soldiers that are in Syria today are going to be withdrawn. That activity is underway. We’re going to do so in an orderly, deliberate way, a way that protects America’s national security, a way that allows us to continue the important mission that they were on. The counter-terrorism mission, the effort to make sure that the destruction of ISIS is not only complete but that their resurgence is not possible, our efforts to counter the threat from terrorism stemming from the Islamic Republic of Iran – those are all real missions. The tactical change we’ve made in the withdrawal of those 2,000 troops is just that, a tactical change. The mission remains the same". View More 12 January 2019 Secretary Pompeo acknowledged that the U.S. goal of removing "every Iranian boot on the ground [in Syria] is an ambitious objective... but it's ours. It is our mission". Withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, Pompeo explained, "is a tactical change. It doesn't materially alter our capacity to continue to perform the military actions that we need to perform. But even more broadly than that, the campaign to create a better world, to allow the Iranian people to have opportunity and democracy, has lots of pieces to it - economic, financial, diplomatic for sure". He went on to suggest that "the nuclear proliferation risks from Iran are incredibly real... our mission set is certainly to stop the terror regime, to stop the fighting of Hizbollah and Shiite militias and the Huthis... but it has a nuclear component". View More 10 January 2019 Secretary Pompeo pledged that "in Syria, the U.S. will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot". "There will be no U.S. reconstruction assistance for areas of Syria held by Assad", he added, "until Iran and its proxy forces withdraw and until we see irreversible progress towards a political resolution". View More 7 January 2019 Secretary Pompeo remarked that President Trump has "made a commitment. We're going to withdraw our uniformed personnel, uniformed guys, 2000 roughly folks on the ground. We're going to withdraw them from Syria". View More 6 January 2019 National Security Advisor John Bolton described the U.S. base at al-Tanf as "still very strategically important in connection with our determination that Iran not achieve this arc of control stretching from Iran through Iraq into Lebanon and Syria". View More 4 January 2019 A senior U.S. diplomat explained that "concerning Syria, we have no timeline for our military forces to withdraw... the President has made the decision that we will withdraw our military forces from Syria, but that it will be done in a deliberate, heavily coordinated way with our allies and partners". The diplomat went on to assert that "our military posture in Syria may be changing, but our overall goals in Syria remain the same, and key among those is... to see the withdrawal from Syria of all Iranian-commanded forces". View More 3 January 2019 Secretary Pompeo remarked that "the President is not ambiguous with respect to Syria. Our troops are coming out. The President also made very clear that we needed to continue the counter-ISIS campaign, and we needed to continue to ensure that we did the things to create stability throughout the Middle East. The counter-Iran campaign continues. We'll do all of those things......we will simply do it at a time when the American forces have departed Syria". Pompeo also discussed U.S. sanctions against Iran, stating that while "a well-supplied crude oil market" was a consideration for issuing sanctions waivers, "we want to ensure that we're complying with the requirements that the sanctions on Iran have the ultimate goal which we're trying to achieve: creating an outcome where the Iranian people... can have better lives than they have today under this tyrannical regime". View More 2 January 2019 President Trump asserted that "Iran is no longer the same country. Iran is pulling people out of Syria. They can do what they want there, frankly. But they're pulling people out. They're pulling people out of Yemen". "When we do all of the things that we've done monetarily to Iran", he added, "Iran is in trouble. And you know what? I'd love to negotiate with Iran. They're not ready yet, I don't think. But they will be. But Iran is a much different country right now... than it was when I took over". Asked about a timetable for pulling U.S. forces out of Syria, Trump responded that it would occur "over a period of time. I never said I'm getting out tomorrow. I said we're pulling our soldiers out, and they will be pulled back in Syria, and we're getting out of Syria... but we're getting out very powerfully". View More 31 December 2018 President Trump asserted that "ISIS is mostly gone", adding that "we're slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting ISIS remnants". View More 30 December 2018 Iran's military chief of staff posited that "the U.S. pullout from Syria is a humiliating withdrawal", adding that "wherever Americans have been present, they caused insecurity... the [U.S.] exit from Syria and other parts of the region will lead to enhanced security and calm in the region". View More 26 December 2018 During a visit to Iraq, President Trump asserted that "there will be a strong, deliberate and orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria... while maintaining the U.S. presence in Iraq to prevent an ISIS resurgence and to protect U.S. interests, and also to always watch very closely over any potential reformation of ISIS and also to watch over Iran. We'll be watching". The trip drew criticism from Iraqi parliamentarians as well as PMU officials. View More 24 December 2018 President Trump announced that "Saudi Arabia has now agreed to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria". View More 24 December 2018 Foreign Minister Javad Zarif opined that "the U.S. has not fought against ISIS at all, and its presence in Syria is not in line with the interests of the Syria nation or agreed by the [country's] government". He went on to state that, following President Trump's decision to pull U.S. forces out of the country, "we do not have sufficient information on the U.S. plans in Syria to adopt a clear-cut stance". View More 23 December 2018 President Trump indicated that the U.S. military withdrawal from Syria would be "slow and highly coordinated". View More 22 December 2018 President Trump asserted that "on Syria, we were originally going to be there for three months, and that was seven years ago - we never left... now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains". View More 22 December 2018 Reacting to President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, Iran's Foreign Ministry opined that "in principle, the deployment and presence of U.S. forces in the region from the outset was a wrong, irrational and provocative move that created tensions". A senior Iranian military official also weighed in saying that "the Americans have come to the conclusion that they can exercise power neither in Iraq and Syria nor in the entire region". View More 20 December 2018 Explaining the U.S. decision to withdraw from Syria, Secretary Pompeo stressed that "the primary mission was to go take down the ISIS caliphate. That is at the very tail end of completion. And we have ISIS remnants in lots of pockets around the world". He added that the U.S. "intends to continue that counter-terrorism campaign, continue the fight against ISIS, whether it stems from Syria or other places". View More 20 December 2018 Elaborating on his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, President Trump asserted that "getting out of Syria was no surprise... Russia, Iran, Syria and others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there [sic] work. Time to come home and rebuild". He went on to state that "Russia, Iran, Syria and many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving... because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us." View More 19 December 2018 Prime Minister Netanyahu revealed that in conversations with President Trump and Secretary Pompeo, "the American administration told me that it is the president's intention to withdraw their forces from Syria. They made it clear that they have other ways of expressing their influence in the area". Netanyahu went on to say that "this is, of course, an American decision. We will study its timetable, how it will be implemented, and - of course - its implications for us. In any case we will take care to maintain the security of Israel and to defend ourselves in this area". View More 19 December 2018 President Trump announced that "we have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency", while a White House statement indicated that "we have started returning U.S. troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign". View More 11 December 2018 A senior Russian defence official maintained that the U.S. was "holding with incomprehensible stubbornness the occupied 55-km area around al-Tanf where 6,000 armed militants are on the loose and are preventing the disbanding of the Rukban refugee camp". In related comments, a Russian diplomatic spokesperson suggested that "there is growing concern related to the dubious activity of the U.S. and its allies in Syria. The illegal occupation of the 55-km zone around the base in al-Tanf continues to be the basic source of destabilisation in that part of Syria". View More 22 November 2018 Referring to the U.S. presence at al-Tanf, Russia's Foreign Ministry remarked that "under the excuse of fighting against ISIS and - as we were told - in order to contain Iran, a big U.S. military base was set up there, in a strategically important area adjacent to the borders of Syria, Iraq and Jordan, which is close to the highway connecting Baghdad and Damascus. And there, according to numerous witness accounts, militant training is underway". View More 14 November 2018 The U.S. special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, laid out U.S. objectives in Syria as "the enduring defeat of ISIS, a re-invigorated and irreversible political process... and de-escalation of the conflict that will include all Iranian-commanded forces departing from the entirety of Syria". Jeffrey elaborated that "on getting Iran out, that is basically part of a process. It's not a military goal of the U.S., it's not a mission of U.S. military forces... you will not have a lasting peace in Syria if Iran is doing the kind of power projection policies out of Syria that it has done through Hizbollah in southern Lebanon and done through the Huthis in northern Yemen". View More 7 November 2018 The U.S. special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, opined that the "Iranians are part of the problem not part of the solution" in Syria, and noted that the U.S. was "contesting more actively Iran's activities particularly in Iraq, Syria and Yemen". View More 29 October 2018 Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, claimed that "under the pretext of supporting Syria Kurds, the U.S. has established bases in the north of Syria and a base in al-Tanf in the south, which is actually used to reorganise ISIS terrorists to fight the Syrian Arab Army". View More 22 October 2018 The commander of U.S. Central Command, Joseph Votel, remarked during a visit to the al-Tanf garrison that "we don't have a counter Iranian mission here. We have a defeat ISIS mission. But I do recognise that our presence, our developments 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". View More 16 October 2018 A senior U.S. diplomat asserted that "we want to see the Iranians leave Syria... and frankly, even the Russians tell us that's their goal. So there seems to be some consensus that the Iranians and their forces inside Syria should leave Syria". View More 30 September 2018 Referring to the al-Tanf garrison, a senior Syrian official claimed that the U.S. is "gathering the remnants of ISIS at this base in order to later send them to wage war on the Syria army". View More 27 September 2018 The U.S. special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, assessed that Iran's involvement in Syria reflects "capabilities that we would associate with power projection over the region. Very similar to what we've seen in southern Lebanon, very similar to what we have seen in northern Yemen". He went on to suggest that "a military presence long term, including power projection - which the Iranian seem to be aiming for - is a little bit more than their minimum goals and seems to be frosting on the cake. What we're trying to suggest is let's put pressure on them to leave". "We're not going to force the Iranians out of Syria", Jeffrey added. "This is all about political pressure". View More 13 September 2018 A U.S. military official indicated that military exercises involving U.S. forces and U.S.-backed rebels in al-Tanf "was conducted to reinforce our capabilities and ensure we are ready to respond to any threat to our forces within our area of operations". The Pentagon also confirmed that Russia had been advised of the drills. View More 7 September 2018 The Pentagon announced a "defeat-ISIS exercise" at the al-Tanf garrison. View More 7 September 2018 In remarks at the trilateral summit on Syria, President Rouhani urged that "the presence and illegal interference of the U.S. in Syria, which has led to the continuation of insecurity in that country, must be ended immediately". View More 6 September 2018 U.S. defence officials indicated that Russia had warned of possible operations near al-Tanf to counter "militants" within the de-confliction zone. A Pentagon official remarked that "the U.S. does not seek to fight the government of Syria or any groups that may be providing it support. However, if attacked, the U.S. will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend U.S., coalition or partner forces". View More 6 September 2018 A senior U.S. official indicated that "the new policy [in Syria] is we're no longer pulling out by the end of the year". View More 4 September 2018 During an encounter with a senior Russian military official, Iran's defence minister, Amir Hatami, estimated that "victories [against terrorists in Syria] are only halfway, and operations need to continue in full coordination, and the military achievements need to be protected in all other arenas". View More 3 September 2018 Several Iranian and Iran-backed troops were purportedly killed or injured in an airstrike near al-Tanf; the U.S.-led coalition acknowledged that the garrison "received fire from unknown forces" but "did not fire back". View More 28 August 2018 Elaborating on the 26 August cooperation deal between Iran and Syria, a senior Iranian military official revealed that "the continuation of presence of Iranian [military] advisors in Syria was one of the points of the defence and technical agreement". View More 26 August 2018 Iran and Syria signed a military cooperation agreement which Iran's defence minister, Amir Hatami, declared would "define the areas of presence, contribution and cooperation between Tehran and Damascus". Hatami also indicated that "Iran's private sector has high enough to capacities to help the Syrian people and government in the reconstruction process", and suggested that Iran "can help Syria to develop military equipment". View More 23 August 2018 A senior Russian diplomat asserted that "we treat Iran's steps to furnish its own security and activities with great respect, specifically in Syria at the invitation of this country's legitimate government. However, this does not mean that there are no prospects or room for further efforts in this sphere". View More 22 August 2018 The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, suggested that "all foreign forces staying [in Syria] without an invitation from the Syrian government must be eventually withdrawn". View More 21 August 2018 The U.S. national security advisor, John Bolton, asserted that "our interests in Syria are to finish the destruction of the ISIS territorial caliphate and deal with the continuing threat of ISIS terrorism and to worry about the presence of Iranian militias and regular forces". Bolton added that "we're going to see what we and others can agree in terms of resolving the conflict in Syria. But the one prerequisite there is the withdrawal of all Iranian forces back in Iran". View More 9 August 2018 A U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group "detained twelve suspicious persons transiting inside the coalition-held 55-km de-confliction zone around Tanf", five of whom were subsequently alleged to be ISIS fighters. View More 2 August 2018 A senior Russian military official claimed that "the number of ISIS militants has been growing in areas adjacent to the al-Tanf zone controlled by U.S. troops". View More 17 July 2018 Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, asserted that "we have good communication and coordination with Russia and with the Syrian government and we will continue to do so. Our objective here is very clear, that is our objectives and the objective of the Russian Federation and that is to fight terrorism and extremism". View More 16 July 2018 An Iranian official opined that "neither Russians nor Europeans are in a position to decide on the withdrawal of Iranian military advisors from Syria". View More 15 July 2018 The U.S. national security advisor, John Bolton, opined that "the president has made it clear that we are [in Syria] until the ISIS territorial caliphate is removed and as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East". View More 13 July 2018 A senior Iranian official remarked that "Iran's presence in Syria and Iraq is advisory and if their respective governments want it, we will leave immediately". He went on to suggest that "the U.S. is seeking to divide Iraq into three parts and Syria to five". View More 10 July 2018 A senior U.S. diplomat asserted that "we are very serious and determined about re-imposing our sanctions that were lifted under the Iran nuclear deal, and we are working very closely with nations to provide alternatives to the Iranian supply of oil". The official also called on "all nations to be vigilant about Iran using embassies as diplomatic cover to plot terrorist attacks". View More 10 July 2018 The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, asserted that "the Iranian presence in Syria is not appropriate and will not be tolerated... we are going to undertake along with our partners a comprehensive program to diminish that activity". View More 1 July 2018 The UK reportedly carried out an airstrike against "pro-Syrian regime forces" near al-Tanf in June. View More 21 June 2018 The U.S. rebuffed reports that it had hit a Syrian military position near al-Tanf, while acknowledging that a U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group was involved in a clash with an "unidentified hostile force" beyond 55-km buffer. View More 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 See 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.