The White House announced yesterday that President Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month in Helsinki, even though Russian airstrikes in southwest Syria are devastating areas inside the ceasefire zone that Trump and Putin endorsed last November. The State Department had warned that the U.S. would take “firm and appropriate measures” in response to such violations, yet reports indicate that American negotiators offered last month to abandon a key base at Tanf, despite clear signs that Assad was getting ready to launch another scorched-earth offensive.
Since 2016, American special operations forces have used a base in the border town of Tanf to train Syrian opposition forces to fight the Islamic State. The town lies near the intersection of the Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian borders, astride a strategic highway that provides the most direct route from Baghdad to Damascus. While the U.S. prohibits the opposition forces at Tanf from fighting the Assad regime, the presence of Coalition troops serves as a bulwark against Iran’s ongoing efforts to establish and secure a so-called “land bridge” from Tehran to the Mediterranean, with the help of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.
The Assad regime and its allies have regularly probed American resolve to defend the base at Tanf. In May and June 2017, the United States launched airstrikes to defend the base after convoys of pro-regime forces ignored repeated warnings to remain outside the “de-confliction zone” separating the two sides. Following the first incident, Secretary of Defense James Mattis described the incursion as the work of “Iranian-directed forces.” The second incident took place after pro-regime forces, including “a tank, artillery, anti-aircraft weapons, armed technical vehicles and more than 60 soldiers,” entered the de-confliction zone, according to a Coalition statement. In October, the regime initiated a third incursion.
Last month, the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield proposed dismantling the U.S. garrison at Tanf as part of a potential agreement to reduce tensions in southwest Syria. As the paper noted, the Syrian regime and its allies were already mobilizing for the southwestern offensive now underway.
After the report about Satterfield emerged, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem indicated that concessions regarding Tanf were essential. He said, “Don't believe anything that is said about an agreement on the south until you see that the United States has withdrawn its forces from the At-Tanaf base.” In contrast, Satterfield testified before Congress that the reports about dismantling Tanf were “totally incorrect.” Regardless, Russia and Syria seem determined to raise the issue if U.S. negotiators have not already.
For the U.S., the abandonment of Tanf would be a serious strategic error. The current offensive in southwest Syria demonstrates that the U.S. cannot trust Russia to enforce agreements, even those made directly between the two countries’ presidents. Second, Tanf provides a valuable launching point for operations against the Islamic State, including a seizure this month of $1.4 million worth of narcotics. Third, were the U.S. to abandon Tanf, retaking it in event of a crisis would be very difficult, from both a political and military perspective. Thus, Iran would secure control of a key pillar supporting their land bridge from Tehran straight through to the Mediterranean, enabling them to accelerate the shipment of weapons and militia fighters to Assad and Hezbollah.
Alexandra N. Gutowski is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on military affairs and manages FDD’s Military Edge website. Follow her on Twitter @angutowski.
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