Fighting around Tanf a critical flashpoint in Syria’s war

Sunday 18/06/2017

Beirut- A remote tract of desert along the Syrian and Ira­qi border has become a critical flashpoint in Syr­ia’s bloody war with US special forces troops and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies in a tense stand-off with the Syrian Army and Iran-backed militias.

The struggle centres on Tanf, the location of a small military garrison on the Damascus-Baghdad highway, 17km north of the border with Iraq. The FSA captured the post from the Islamic State (ISIS) in March 2016 and since then it has been used by US, British and Norwegian special forces to train vetted Syrian fighters for the campaign against ISIS.

The Tanf base is a launch pad for eventual advances east across the desert to the ISIS stronghold at Bu­kamal on the Euphrates River.

In May, Syrian troops along with fighters from Hezbollah and the Imam Ali Battalions, an Iraqi militia linked to the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a state-sanctioned anti-ISIS coalition, began to as­semble at the Zaza Junction, 75km north-west of Tanf. The goal was to seize the garrison and reach the Iraqi border.

For Iran, Tanf represents the last link to the creation of a long-desired land corridor that stretches from Iran to Lebanon. A land corridor would provide an alternative route to the well-established air links to Damascus to convey more weapon­ry to Hezbollah and to deploy fight­ers to Syrian battlefronts.

Previously, it was believed that Iran sought a route across northern Iraq through territory controlled by the Kurds. However, Iran may have opted for a more direct southerly corridor via the Diyala and Anbar provinces before entering Syria near Tanf. This route is less convoluted than the northern passage and Iran would not have to rely on potential­ly unreliable Kurds for permission to pass through their areas.

While the Sunnis of Anbar prov­ince are not well disposed towards Iran, they are not in a position to mount attacks against Iranian con­voys. The convoys would probably be protected by the PMF and they would have a civilian, rather than military, appearance making it dif­ficult for potential insurgents to identify them separately from com­mercial trucks.

The US forces in Tanf have a deconfliction zone around the garrison of about 30km. US jets staged attacks on May 18 and June 7 against small militia convoys that were heading towards Tanf in breach of the zone. On June 8, a US aircraft shot down a suspected Iranian Shahed 129 combat drone in the desert close to where the US forces have established a forward operating base (FOB) beside a salt pan 65km north-east of Tanf.

In response to the air strikes, Hez­bollah warned that it had the capa­bility to attack US forces in the area if the Americans were to cross the “red line” again.

On June 9, pro-Syrian regime me­dia reported that Syrian troops and their militia allies had reached the border with Iraq north-east of Tanf and linked up with the PMF operat­ing on the other side of the frontier. Instead of forcing a confrontation with the United States at Tanf, the Syrian military alliance had simply swung through the desert east of the garrison and the new FOB, by­passing the US forces and their FSA allies.

How the situation develops de­pends on the priorities of the vari­ous parties. Syria and Iran likely wish to end the US presence in south-east Syria and wipe out the US-backed FSA militias operating in the area. That would restore a large tract of southern Syria to Damas­cus’s control and allow the Syrian military alliance to press on to Bu­kamal and attack ISIS.

However, it is difficult to see the United States simply retreating with their FSA allies back to Jordan, leaving the region to Damascus and Tehran. Furthermore, if Iran is per­mitted to establish unmolested its land bridge across the heart of the Middle East, Washington will be deafened by the howls of protest from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Is­rael.

The United States enjoys the mili­tary edge in the area and potentially can exploit its airpower to drive back the Syrian military alliance but it is unclear how Russia would react to such a scenario. On June 10, in a phone call with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed Moscow’s “categorical disagree­ment” with US forces attacking Syr­ian troops.

Furthermore, Iran has a host of options to make life difficult for the United States beyond the immedi­ate environs of south-east Syria if American forces attempt to remove the Syrian military alliance from the border. For a start, there are 5,000 US service personnel in Iraq who could be vulnerable to blowback by Iranian allies.

The United States has said it does not wish to engage with Syrian and allied forces and that its goal is to defeat ISIS but a statement from the US-led anti-ISIS coalition on June 11 noted: “As long as pro-regime forces are oriented towards coalition and partnered forces, the potential for conflict is escalated.”

The collision of separate interests and priorities among a multitude of international players in this remote stony desert landscape makes for a very combustible mix.