Washington fights to stay in Syria game from isolated base
The US deployment east of the Euphrates in north-eastern Syria receives the most attention, but there is another front where US forces are deployed that is currently heating up — the inhospitable border region where Jordan, Syria and Iraq meet.
The US military base at Syria’s al-Tanf is less than 30km from the long-shuttered Iraqi al-Walid border crossing along the M2 highway.
The few hundred US forces based there are in many respects orphans of Washington’s contracting Syria strategy — a legacy deployment far less valuable than in the past but not costly enough in blood or treasure to warrant a White House decision to withdraw.
Washington’s presence in the region dates to 2016, when it established a base to train forces of the short-lived New Syrian Army (NSA). Maghawir al-Thawra (MaT) was born out of the NSA’s collapse that year.
The 300-strong proxy forces of MaT have shown little interest of late in fighting the regime or ISIS. Instead they rule over ever diminishing numbers of refugees in the desert camp at Rukban nearby.
At its peak, the camp hosted 60,000. Today, as part of the ongoing effort by Damascus to reduce the footprint of opposition forces, thousands have left for parts of Syria under government control. Today barely 12,000 remain.
The couple of hundred US troops at al-Tanf have no interest in Rukban, except to highlight Damascus’s humanitarian shortcomings. The camp is within the self-declared US exclusion zone claimed by US forces. So, as a matter of international law, the camp’s well-being is an American responsibility, a task Washington has, at best, only half-heartedly embraced.
In this desolate part of Syria there is no oil to covet, nor is the MaT anywhere close to the asset represented by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The real estate around al-Tanf is what keeps US forces in place – a single highway linking Iraq and points east (Iran) to Syria and points west (Lebanon/Hezbollah).
These days, after the battle to unseat Assad has failed, the sole objective of the zone established by Washington is to obstruct passage along the M2 highway and to keep the al-Walid crossing closed. US control of this road complicates Iran’s effort to cement a bulletproof transport link between Iran and its allies in Syria and Lebanon and obstructs the revival of regional trade vital to the economic rehabilitation of the entire Mashreq.
Jordan has just announced that, due to concerns about the coronavirus, it will no longer allow the transit of aid to Rukban through its border.
In recent months, however, the big picture around al-Tanf is being transformed.
Although the US is loathe to acknowledge it, al-Tanf’s value to Washington is eroding as the US redeploys out of small isolated bases in Iraq’s nearby Anbar province and elsewhere, with the commensurate strengthening of the presence of the Iraqi Army and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Such is the case at Bukamal, for example — a long shuttered border crossing to the north now open to transit from Iraq to Syria and beyond.
In the US zone itself, the Russian Defence Ministry and an Iranian news outlet recently highlighted what was described as the surrender of some MaT forces and equipment to the Syrian Army.
Earlier this week, SANA reported that a recent attack in Damascus was tied to the Military Operations Centre (MOC) — the Amman-based command centre run by Washington to coordinate anti-regime efforts around its base at al-Tanf.
Whether such incidents occurred is not the most important point. For those opposing
Washington’s presence, there is obvious advantage in highlighting problems – even if they are manufactured – for the US in the faraway desert outpost.
What cannot be denied, however, is the fact of a new phase in Iraqi and Syrian efforts — together with their allies and proxies — to increase pressure on the border region at American expense.
Washington is far from rolling over in the face of this campaign. It continues to tout its presence in central Syria. On April 10, for example, it distributed pictures of its top of the line F-35A Lightning II fighter jet, “strik[ing] at extremist organisations in Syria despite COVID-19, reflecting the worldwide unity to see an enduring defeat delivered against Daesh.”
Along the Iraq-Syria frontier however, the trend leads in another direction. Earlier this month a combined operation of the Iraqi army and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) — “Victory Heroes 2” — deployed 8 brigades along the frontier region.
This operation was facilitated by the removal of US forces from the Iraqi base at al-Qaim controlling the approach to the border crossing at Bukamal. Qaim-Bukamal is now the only crossing on the Iraqi-Syrian border that is officially operated by the Iraqi and Syrian governments.
Such developments suggest that the day is not far off when Iraq, with the collaboration of the PMF elements, will control its entire western border.
Syria’s challenge in this regard is, if anything, more complicated. The al-Walid border crossing is closed because of the US presence at al-Tanf. Assad is also challenged to contain the scattered but deadly ISIS presence in the Badia region south-west of Deir ez-Zor, where an ISIS attack recently killed 27 regime forces.
Both Baghdad and Damascus share the strategic objective of reasserting their sovereign control over their respective borders. Attaining this objective requires a de facto partnership to undertake complementary campaigns on both sides of the border. The incremental success of this effort will increase the isolation of the small and increasingly strategically insignificant US position at al-Tanf, offering US President Donald Trump yet another reason to close the books on America’s costly adventure in As-Sham.