Al-Tanf in Syria is a lonely desert outpost. Before the Syrian civil war broke out, it was the site of a small military base and al-Waleed border crossing. A road through the crossing and the vast deserts around Iraq’s Anbar province linked Baghdad and Damascus.
Today it is the site of a not-so-secretive US-led coalition training program for Syrian rebel groups that are supposed to be fighting Islamic State. There’s one problem: Since mid-June, they have been cut off from ISIS by the Syrian regime and its allies, leaving their future role uncertain.
In an interview with Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, Dillon detailed the challenges the coalition and its allies face in al-Tanf.
“We have been operating from al-Tanf garrison since the beginning of this year and [for] well over a year working with our partner forces indigenous to that area,” he said.
According to Dillon, the US works with two groups, Maghawir al-Thawra, or MAT, and Shohada al-Quartayn.
MAT, which is known in English as the Revolutionary Commando Army, is the larger of the two groups. According to some reports, units of these fighters were once part of the New Syrian Army, a rebel group that carried out a failed offensive in June 2016 to try to liberate Al-Bukamal, a city on the Syrian-Iraq border, from ISIS. Had it been successful, the rebel group would have gained strategic control of the Euphrates River Valley.
“[We are] training them [MAT and Shohada al-Quartayn] on things like establishing checkpoints, patrols, ambush, medical training, some of these types of things,” Dillon said. “There have been skirmishes in that area and some battles with ISIS that have been down in that area.”
While the first priority is to train these groups, “purpose number two is that these forces are from these areas,” he said. “ISIS exists in the middle Euphrates River Valley, [and these trained forces] would be intended to be partner forces if and when we take on ISIS in the Euphrates River Valley.”
The US has had other training programs in Jordan aimed at supporting rebel groups from Syria. According to some reports, most of these have not been very successful, but since 2015, the Pentagon’s anti-ISIS work in eastern Syria with the Kurds has seen progress.
The training at al-Tanf was intended to build on that, and as recently as this spring, it seemed to be working, with the rebels expanding their area of operations over a huge swath of desert the size of Lebanon. It even seemed they might reach the Euphrates River Valley, 150 km. to the east. But in May, the Syrian Army rushed around them, reaching the Iraqi border on June 10 and turning the US anti-ISIS forces into a pocket surrounded by the Syrian regime and its allies.
“Since mid-May, the regime moved into the area, so that ability to continue to patrol as far out as we had in the past, that is somewhat restricted,” Dillon said.
The US launched several air strikes on the regime’s forces as they approached al-Tanf, warning them off.
“Our force is not there to fight the regime, so things have de-escalated quite a bit since the last incursion with the regime in the beginning of June, going back to why we are there [to fight ISIS],” Dillon said. “The partner forces are doing patrols in that area, and the regime has restricted [their] ability to patrol as far as we wanted to.”
According to Dillon, the coalition has established a 55-km. “de-confliction radius” around al-Tanf that the regime and its allies are not supposed to enter. “We are being good on our commitment to try to de-escalate things,” he said. “We are not patrolling as we were in the past.”
This has led pro-Assad media to mock the US operation and analysts to question whether the US is engaged in mission creep or simply lacks a goal in al-Tanf.
The US isn’t expanding the operation there, Dillon said, adding: “I don’t expect growth to be the case. This has been a temporary garrison to train from, especially since we saw the lack of presence of ISIS in the area since we began patrolling a year ago. If anything, it will be in the opposite direction. We considered it temporary – how temporary is to be determined.”
Even the 55-km. radius isn’t a permanent de-confliction, it’s to demarcate areas so that “regime elements” and US partners don’t run into each other in a “congested space.” They won’t challenge the Syrian regime, but they will defend against it.
The coalition is reticent about further plans for operational security. With hundreds of coalition personnel on the ground, including special forces, reports of a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and trainers, and hundreds of rebels who have been trained, the mission needs a goal.
Rumors have circulated that the units could be airlifted over the regime forces and ISIS to a front line near al-Shaddadi, which is held by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Al-Gad, a Jordanian newspaper, claimed this could happen soon, placing these units 100 km. from Deir Ez-Zor and the Euphrates valley. Then the rebel “commandos” could gain experience fighting ISIS alongside seasoned units of the SDF, joining a force of 55,000, including 7,500 Arab fighters, many of whom the US has helped train and arm.
The initial success and uncertainty at al-Tanf today revolves around a US policy that does not want open conflict with the regime but knows that there is a race to fill the vacuum of a declining ISIS. Whoever gets to the Euphrates first will control a strategic corridor – be it the rebels, the Kurds or the regime.