(Bloomberg) -- U.S. troops in one small outpost in the south of Syria may be preparing for a longer stay, even as administration and military officials try to work out the details of President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw.
The American base at Al-Tanf, originally established as a southern foothold against Islamic State and a training ground for Syrian rebels, has become one of the main obstacles to the president’s plan to leave. Israeli and some U.S. officials argue that a continued American presence there is critical to interrupting Iran’s supply lines into Lebanon, where Hezbollah -- Iran’s proxy and Israel’s enemy -- has been building up its arsenal.
U.S. troops at the base established a 55-kilometer “deconfliction zone” including part of the strategic Damascus-to-Baghdad highway. The surrounding territory is controlled by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who’s backed by Iran and Russia.
The debate over what to do with Al-Tanf reveals U.S. goals in Syria that go beyond the official rationale of defeating Islamic State -- complicating Trump’s desire to exit. The administration also wants to constrain Iran’s influence, including by limiting its ability to use Syria as a launching point for operations against Israel.
“It all depends on Trump,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “He ordered U.S. forces to leave Syria. There have been efforts to pare that back and to treat Tanf as separate from the northeast, but it’s unclear if the president will be convinced.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been doing his best, and he has the president’s ear, according to one senior U.S. diplomat, who asked not to be named citing confidential discussions. Netanyahu has repeatedly urged the U.S. to keep troops at Al-Tanf, according to several senior Israeli officials, who also asked not to be identified discussing private talks. Even if they don’t do much, the mere presence of American troops will act as a deterrent to Iran, the Israelis say.
That argument holds sway with Iran hawks in the U.S. administration including National Security Adviser John Bolton, who’s been talking down a speedy U.S. withdrawal. On a recent trip to Israel and Turkey, Bolton indicated that there would be no rush to remove troops from Al-Tanf, although it wasn’t clear if he sought the kind of long-term U.S. presence there that Israel wants.
The Israeli demands seem to have been reflected in other public statements from the U.S., as the emphasis switched away from a speedy removal of all forces, and toward pulling out of the northeast. There are concerns in that part of Syria too, over the fate of Kurdish fighters supported by the U.S. but viewed as terrorists by Turkey, which is threatening to attack them.
It’s also unclear how the U.S. could maintain a relatively small presence of no more than a few hundred troops at Al-Tanf as Assad reimposes his grip on the rest of the country.
‘Once They’re In’
Russia has been skeptical of Trump’s announcement from the start.
“I don’t believe Americans will leave,” Frants Klintsevich, a member of the defense and security committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, said in a phone interview Friday. “Once they are in, they stay.”
But he predicted that “in the end the U.S. will just have this Al-Tanf base, and nothing more.” And he said that when that happens, “Russia and Syria will increase pressure on the U.S. to withdraw.”
Even if the U.S. resists that pressure, says Stein, it’s unlikely that its troops there will achieve much. He sees a mismatch between the grand geostrategic claims being made about the base, and the reality of a small, isolated outpost in the desert, surrounded by hostile forces.
Al-Tanf is “a vulnerable fire base that Iran and Russia fly over every day,” he said. “There is no strategy here.”
--With assistance from Glen Carey.
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