January 29, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Jordan in spotlight over killing of US service members

The US role in Jordan and Syria has an essential role to play in maintaining the regional stability that Iran is trying to erode.
January 29, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Jordan in spotlight over killing of US service members

The US role in Jordan and Syria has an essential role to play in maintaining the regional stability that Iran is trying to erode.

The Iranian-backed killing of three American service members in Jordan has brought a spotlight on northeast Jordan and the US role in the Jordan-Syria-Iraq border region. Iran denied any involvement in the attack, but the US has blamed Iranian-backed militias. It is clear that Iranian-backed groups are the only ones that would likely have access to the kind of drones used in the attacks. In addition Iran’s own Tasnim News bragged about the “Islamic Resistance” in Iraq targeting US forces. The “Islamic Resistance” is a group of pro-Iranian militias. The Iranian-backed Houthis have called the attack a message.

Jordan had sought to create distance between the Kingdom and the attack on Sunday night, asserting that the attack took place in Syria and that the US garrison at Tanf was the target. Iranian media claimed that the Iranian proxies targeted both Tanf and a site called Rukban. Rukban sometimes refers to a displaced person’s camp in Syria on the Jordanian border. There is a facility called Tower 22 in Jordan which overlooks the site. This facility has US forces.

Jordan has now condemned what it calls a terrorist attack. “Jordan condemned the terrorist attack that targeted an advanced position on the border with Syria, and led to the killing of 3 American soldiers and the wounding of others from the American forces that are cooperating with Jordan in confronting the threat of terrorism and securing the borders,” Al-Ghad media noted. Jordan has expressed condolences to the Americans who were killed.

Jordan now says that it will continue to “confront the threat of terrorism and the smuggling of drugs and weapons across the Syrian border into Jordan, and will confront with all determination and power anyone who attempts to attack the security of the Kingdom. Jordan had previously announced that it was cooperating with its partners to secure the borders, and had asked the United States and other friendly countries to provide it with the necessary military systems and equipment to increase the capabilities to secure the borders.”

The Jordanian statement does not reference Iran or Iranian-backed militias. Instead, the Jordanian statement points to “terrorism” and also discusses the issue of drug smuggling which has led to destabilization in the border area between Jordan and Syria in the past. The drug smuggling operations in Syria are connected to the Syrian regime and many are also linked to Iranian-backed militias. Jordanian armed forces have clashed with the smugglers over the last year.

The US presence in Jordan and Syria is essential to regional security

The drone attack, the death of US servicemen and Jordan’s comments now shed light on the important role that the US has been playing in Jordan. US forces have been based at Tanf garrison in Syria, just across the border from the area known as “Tower 22” for around six years. Tanf is a small facility and it is used to support anti-ISIS fighters. When the support for these fighters began, back in 2015 or 2016, they were seen as potentially playing a larger role.

At the time there were Syrian rebels holding a part of southern Jordan near Dara’a. The area in Tanf is between Suwaida and the Syrian desert. It is mostly desert, but it is in a strategic area because it is near the border area with Iraq. As such it also has a role to play in what goes on in the middle Euphrates river valley or MERV. The distances here are large, and the area is not populated, which means that even a small force can have a large influence. As such US forces were working with Syrian rebel groups at Tanf and those groups had influence over a swath of desert. There was a 55km zone around Tanf that the US has also created. This is a kind of exclusion zone and the Syrian regime and other forces are not supposed to enter it. This creates a kind of large semi-circle on the Jordanian border, in Syria.

If you zoom out from the Tanf garrison and look at the larger picture, this area has an important role to play. The Iranian regime has sought to dominate an area in the Euphrates river valley that stretches from Albukamal on the border with Iraq, to a series of waypoints along the way toward central Syria. These waypoints are sometimes called T2 and T3 and T4.

The last of these points, T4, is the Tiyas base near Palmyra where Iran has sometimes based drones and where it tried to move air defenses in 2018. As such Iran exploits this desert region to move weapons to Syria and to influence Syria and influence militias in Syria. Furthermore Iran tried to establish a base in Albukamal back in 2019. The Imam Ali base was supposed to be a storage facility and also influence peddling site for Iranian-backed militias. Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah also had a headquarters in Albukamal in 2018.

Therefore the US role in this part of Jordan and Syria is important because it creates influence and security that has an essential role to play in the stability of the region. Iran is trying to erode stability. It uses militias that threaten the US, Israel, Jordan and other countries to do this. It doesn’t only transport weapons to groups like Hezbollah, it also fuels drug smuggling. As such this area is important to the future of the Middle East. Iran’s decision to empower its militias to target American forces in Tanf and Rukban is a serious escalation and also sheds light on the US role in this corner of Jordan.

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Jordan Syria U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy