WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is unsure what it will do with a garrison of U.S. troops now stationed at a base in southeastern Syria, a choke point on Iranian involvement in Syria and larger threats to Jordan and Israel.
The continent of roughly 200 troops is at Al Tanf, where Syria, Iraq and Jordan meet. It is just south of the major east-west highway across the dessert.
Pentagon officials have convinced the White House that those forces should be the last to leave Syria under the withdrawal ordered by President Donald Trump, Pentagon officials said in interviews.
The Pentagon has used the facility to train anti-ISIS militia, justifying its presence at the location as part of the larger battle against ISIS. That justification would end once U.S. forces declare the battle against ISIS is over and withdraw from Syrian.
Russian forces operating with the Syrian government have been eager to move into the U.S. facility. Syrian government troops have tested U.S. resolve in the region with military probes, including one last September when they attacked ISIS elements outside the garrison. U.S. forces prepared for battle and had air support on stand.
After that, about 100 U.S. Marines were sent to the base to be part of a larger force that held military exercises using live ammunition. The Pentagon has enforced a 35-mile deconfliction zone around the area, which Russia objects.
Then, Moscow used the deconfliction line to tell U.S. commanders that they planned to enter the At Tanf deconfliction zone to pursue terrorists. The Russians also sent a written note regarding the plan to make air strikes in the At Tanf zone, Pentagon officials said in a briefing for reporters.
Pentagon officials said that the Russians were “advised” to remain out of the 35-mile At Tanf zone and that the U.S. “did not require any assistance to fight ISIS” in that part of Syria, they told the media.
A U.S. decision on Al Tanf looms large for Syrian government forces, who wish to control the entire border with Iraq. A U.S. departure would also clear the highway for Iran to resume unfettered overland supplying of Damascus.
As an example of Syrian government forces restiveness, over the weekend the anti-ISIS coalition struck a Syrian military position in response to aggression against the coalition.
According to Reuters news reports, Syrian government forces attacked coalition elements bear Albu Kamal under the guise of attacking ISIS positions. The coalition said it was acting in self defense; Syrian media reported that a coalition jet hit the military outpost first.
Col. Sean Ryan, a spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, said in an email to the media, “Our partner forces were fired upon and exercised their inherent right to self defense.”