Fighting around Tanf a critical flashpoint in Syria’s war
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.