From time to time, there are reports that the US military base of Al-Tanf in southern Syria has been bombed and attacked by the parties to the conflict: Russia, Iran, the Syrian regime and the Islamic State.
The most recent of these attacks was in June 2022, when the Wall Street Journal quoted US military personnel as saying that two Russian Sukhoi fighter jets targeted a site at the Al-Tanf base of the international coalition led by Washington in Syria, without indicating the damage or the targeted location.
Perhaps this attack is not the first of its kind, as al-Qaeda has been repeatedly targeted by armed and drone aircraft and missiles, in addition to repeated attacks on the ground by ISIS, militias loyal to Iran and Syrian regime forces that corrupt Al-Tanf's full control over the Badia and the south of the country.
What is the story of the establishment of the Al-Tanf base and its importance that prompted Washington to exclude it from the decision to withdraw US forces from Syria issued by President Donald Trump in 2018?
Al-Tanf military base was actually established in 2016 at the intersection of the Syrian borders with Jordan and Iraq and is administratively affiliated to Homs, the largest province in Syria, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy indicates in a report that it includes between 100 and 200 American military personnel, but other reports indicate larger numbers, in addition to the presence of British soldiers and from other countries participating in the coalition.
According to the same report, citing sources in the US Department of Defense, al-Qaeda is being used to continue operations against the Islamic State, impeding the activities of Iran's proxies in Syria, and at the same time is considered a card of influence in long-running negotiations over the future of Syria.
Map of Syria showing the location of al-Tanf base, the surrounding buffer zone, and the Rukban camp for Syrian refugees (Al Jazeera)
Satellite images broadcast by Russian websites showed the United States working to expand the military base in Al-Tanf since the early years of its establishment, and media reports said that Washington provided the base with weapons, advanced missile launchers and various aircraft.
The importance of the rule
Prior to 2016, the area around the base was under the control of the Islamic State before it was driven out by the U.S.-led international coalition. Since then, the United States has used it as a training base for Syrian opposition groups.
The base is located on one of the main highways between Baghdad and Damascus, which, according to Washington, is responsible for transporting arms supplies from Iran to Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and is surrounded by a campus or buffer zone with a radius of 55 kilometers formed as part of a US-Russian understanding in 2016.
Tanf is the only site with a significant U.S. presence in Syria outside the north, which is controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters.
This area has enabled U.S. and allied forces to undermine Islamic State operations and prevented the entry of Iranian militias, according to the Washington Institute report. It has also had a secondary effect in attracting thousands of displaced Syrians in the Rukban camp, just a few miles from al-Qaeda on the Syrian side of the border, and protecting them from attacks by regime forces.
At its peak, Rukban was a refuge for more than 50,10 displaced Syrians, although that number reportedly dropped to about <>,<> over the years as a number of its residents returned to regime-controlled areas following several deals with Damascus.
"Army of the Commandos of the Revolution"
Rukban is also home to the families of the main opposition faction at al-Tanf military base, the Army of the Commandos of the Revolution, a group of former Syrian officers and military mostly from Deir Ezzor province (east), which ISIS captured in its massive offensive in Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2014 before being driven out years later.
On the role played by the US-backed faction in al-Qaeda, the media office of the Army of the Commando Revolution said in a written statement to Al Jazeera Net that its main task is to protect the area where al-Qaeda is located and its surroundings, and to prevent attempts to infiltrate by the Islamic State and the regime, in addition to combating drug trafficking in all its forms.
Regarding its ability to protect this vast area despite its limited number of members, the faction said it is doing so through "tight military plans and high coordination with friends in the international coalition".
An account in the name of the faction on Twitter shows recent photos from inside the US military base, training by its fighters with American soldiers, as well as meetings of its commanders with the elements.
Another hot day in #الصحراء.
But we will continue to #التدريب relentlessly in the 55 km zone with our #الأمريكيين partners to confront our #داعش and adversaries.
Mortars, machine guns, rifles and all the firepower. #اقوياءمعا #التنف #التحالف #سورية @SOJTF_LEVANT @CJTFOIR pic.twitter.com/Matb82JtBW
— Commandos of the Revolution (@MaghaweirThowra) June 19, 2022
Other photos show the faction commander inspecting the aftermath of the latest strike and damage to al-Tanf base in mid-June 2022.
The Commander of the Revolutionary Commando Army, Brigadier General Muhannad Al-Talaa, visited the point that was #الاعتداء yesterday, in order to inspect the #المقاتلين and #الاطمئنان on the #سلامتهم and assess the damage caused by this attack. #التنف #سورية #مخيم #الركبان #اعتداء pic.twitter.com/ujzvqdDJFz
— Commandos of the Revolution (@MaghaweirThowra) June 16, 2022
The US State Department estimates that about 300 members of the "Maghawir al-Thawra" faction are deployed in the buffer zone surrounding the base. U.S. forces have trained the faction since establishing a presence at the base and are currently cooperating with it on counter-Islamic State and humanitarian missions.
As for the role played by al-Qaeda, Colonel Fayez al-Asmar, a military and strategic analyst, said that all US military bases deployed on the Syrian geography are important to Washington, and often choose their locations near the border strip linking Syria with both Turkey and Iraq, such as the bases of Tal Baydar, al-Shadadi, al-Malikiyah and Rmeilan in Hasaka and the base of Kharab Ashq south of the border city of Ain Arab with Turkey.
Al-Asmar, a former commander in the Free Syrian Army, pointed out that all US bases in Syria are located east of the Euphrates River and in the desert of the Jazira region, but the only base located in the area called the vast "Shamiya" desert is the strategic Al-Tanf base.
He stressed that the importance of the base lies in its location on the border triangle between Syria, Iraq and Jordan, which gives the forces in it room to maneuver inside Syria in more than one direction and even outside it if necessary, as well as its location on the main supply route linking Iran, Damascus and Beirut through Iraq, as well as its importance lies in fighting ISIS cells, which are generally increasingly active in the Shamiya desert after the organization lost its spatial control in both Syria and Iraq.
According to the Washington Institute, in addition to undermining Iran's line of communication on the ground with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, the U.S. presence at al-Tanf has proven useful for what Tel Aviv describes as Israel's "campaign between wars," which reportedly included dozens of air missions against regime and IRGC targets or Iranian militias and Hezbollah in Syria.
US base also protects nearby Rukban Syrian refugee camp (Al Jazeera)
Al-Qaeda has also served Jordanian interests, helping U.S. soldiers and their "commandos of the revolution" to ensure the security of the kingdom's distant borders with Iraq and Syria against smuggling and possible infiltration of ISIS elements or Iranian militias.
Although Jordan has warned of a threat posed by Rukban, Washington has helped reduce that risk by erecting roadblocks and supporting U.S.-trained military personnel patrolling the Syrian side of the border.
The future of "Al-Tanf"
Recent reports indicate that President Joe Biden's administration has completed its review of U.S. Syria policy and will focus on continuing operations to defeat ISIS and provide humanitarian assistance.
The Washington Institute sees this as a paradigm shift from the Trump administration's policy, which has focused on two other goals besides defeating the group: implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2554 (which includes enabling a political transition that allows for the formation of a Syrian governing body) and ensuring the withdrawal of all foreign forces.
The Biden administration may not be interested in prioritizing the goals of the previous administration, as evidenced by its perceived lack of interest in preventing Arab normalization with Bashar al-Assad or appointing a high-level envoy to Syria. Still, maintaining a U.S. foothold at al-Tanf and in the northeast would fundamentally benefit U.S. interests and administration goals.
Apart from preventing the Islamic State from regrouping enough to launch new attacks in Syria or beyond, the U.S. presence on the ground is Washington's main leverage in shaping Syria's future and undermining Iran's cross-border activities.
Colonel Fayez al-Asmar added that the Al-Tanf base gives US forces the possibility to use advanced Haymars rocket launchers and other modern weapons, as well as sending drones in the region, and it is possible to make it a base and base for launching and moving on the ground, in the event of an increasing threat from Iranian militias or Hezbollah and regime forces to Israel from southern Syria, due to the possibility of safe supplies from Iraq and Jordan.