Al Tanf garrison: America’s strategic baggage in the Middle East

Turkish and American soldiers stand near a former YPG military point during a joint U.S.-Turkey patrol, near Tel Abyad, Syria September 8, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

America’s presence in the Middle East holds hidden costs, unknown risks, and nominal benefits in maintaining the status quo. The “pivot to Asia” under the Obama administration required balancing how to secure U.S. interests in the Middle East with fewer resources. The U.S. must consider actions of the past, specifically the strategic baggage that has accrued over years of growing military commitments. One key case study in strategic baggage is in Syria.

“Strategic baggage” refers to a military commitment that has outlasted its utility. This occurs when, on balance, the perception of the costs is either too high, benefits too low, or risks too great to continue. The build-up of baggage impacts other choices regarding global priorities, goals, and allocation of military forces. In this way, it hampers America’s ability to make strategic choices moving forward, because we are wedded to the past and cannot wipe the slate clean.

We have baggage in the Middle East we should let go.

As the U.S. tries to focus on great power competition, we have baggage in the Middle East we should let go. For example, U.S. strategic objectives in Syria often appear confused and the military role is not clear. As Central Command commander, General Kenneth McKenzie, has said: “There’s no viable military solution to the conflict in Syria.” Yet, without a clear policy regarding U.S. interests — and more importantly, a realistic path forward — we are left with an open-ended military commitment. Thus, in trying to balance competing regional and global interests, we end up maintaining the status quo. An example of this type of strategic baggage, which should be jettisoned, is Al Tanf garrison in Syria. At this point, Al Tanf is strategic baggage because maintaining it outstrips most regional benefits and impacts availability of military assets for other missions.

The supposed justifications for keeping Al Tanf

Al Tanf is a tiny outpost near the tri-border region in southeast Syria straddling the Baghdad-Damascus highway. There is a token U.S. military presence along with a partner force, the Maghawir al-Thawra (previously called the New Syrian Army). Originally, the area was held by ISIS, but was occupied by friendly forces in early 2016. In a deal brokered with the Russians, there was a 55-kilometer deconfliction zone circumscribed around the garrison, which is patrolled by Americans and their partners.

Currently, there are at least three justifications for sustaining the U.S. presence at Al Tanf: interdicting ISIS remnants, disrupting the Syrian economy and Iranian influence, and its potential for political leverage in negotiations.

On the first: Thanks to the coalition’s success, Operation Inherent Resolve succeeded in its mission of defeating ISIS and driving the group out of the area. With freedom of movement limited by the U.S. military presence, remaining ISIS members have blended in with the 100,000 Syrian Bedouins and displaced people living in the deconfliction zone.

On the second: Disrupting transit along the Baghdad-Damascus highway theoretically puts economic pressure on the Syrian regime and denies it one of the three potential land-bridge routes between Iran and the Mediterranean. Former Central Command commander, General Joseph Votel, recognized there is an “indirect effect” in constraining Iranian actions. Even given the U.S. interest in aiding Israel’s security, the American presence is not a significant constraint.  If the U.S. presence had more meaningful impact, there would have been less need for Israel to increase its own pressure on Iranian activity in Syria. The former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, said he obtained unanimous consent from his government in January 2017 to push back on Iran. The result was that Israeli attacks “became near-daily events,” with 2,000 bombs dropped in 2018 alone.  Furthermore, caravans routinely travel in the open desert (albeit more slowly) effectively bypassing the deconfliction zone.

The justification that has the most merit is that Al Tanf could be used in negotiating an acceptable outcome in Syria. Holding on to the real estate complicates Russian, Iranian, and Syrian plans. All three actors want to expel U.S. presence in order to have a freer hand to expand influence.

While some think the military presence at Al Tanf is necessary to undermine the Syrian economy, disrupt Russian and Iranian plans, and keep open the prospect of diplomatic leverage,  this assumes costs and risks are low and that there are security and political advantages in this type of open-ended arrangement. But the justifications have lost merit over time.

The costs

There are tangible and intangible costs to maintaining the U.S. presence at Al Tanf. This year’s budget request for the Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Force is $200 million. Only a small fraction of this amount is needed to support operations and the partner force at Al Tanf. While this is a bargain, the true costs of maintaining Al Tanf are more complex.

Securing Al Tanf requires more than a small number of troops. First, the troops must be able to protect themselves with a quick reaction force, artillery support, medical capability, and a robust intelligence effort to sniff out threats. Second, they must have firepower nearby or on-call to deter, and if necessary, respond to aggression. The prospect that coalition airpower will be used to defend the American flag above Al Tanf is the decisive deterrent. But this requires airframes to be airborne, refueled, and ready to fight at a moment’s notice.

The final, and most understated military cost, is how this force is led and sustained. There are multiple echelons of command that require staffing to navigate the complex and sensitive international environment.  Logistically, there are no paved roads to Al Tanf, or airfields, so almost all supplies arrive via convoys across the desert. Finally, there are three to four units at home in varying phases of preparation for deployment to support the continuous U.S. presence.  Therefore, any footprint required in the Syrian theater to support operations at At Tanf should be multiplied by three to four to account for the total cost of a persistent presence. Even with economies of scale through consolidation of support activities and including contractors, the ratio of support and staff to sustain a deployed troop presence is about four to one. Applied across the region, the sum total of support required for “tooth to tail” sharply contrasts with the idea that actual troop presence is low. As is true for any of America’s deployed footprint, the “boots on the ground” are just the tip of the iceberg.

The “boots on the ground” are just the tip of the iceberg.

There are also reputational costs to America’s presence in southern Syria. First, the displaced-persons camp on the Jordanian-Syrian border at Rukban, about 35 miles from Al Tanf, has housed as many as 60,000 people. Many in the international community believe that, since the United States effectively controls the area through its presence at Al Tanf, it is America’s responsibility to care for them. Relieving the human suffering is hampered by geopolitical competition, legitimate security concerns, and lately a pandemic. Second, in terms of international law, we are open to domestic and international scrutiny. For some Americans, it is ironic that the U.S. touts respect for sovereignty yet occupies portions of Syria against the will of the government and without clear justification under international law; it provides the Russians with ample talking points. Furthermore, American actions there have spurred debates about whether its extended presence remains legally justifiable and how the experience may be establishing state practice to shape future international legal norms in ways that might not benefit long-term American interests.

Finally, there are escalatory risks that exist with the extended U.S. military presence at Al Tanf.  Russia has already acted provocatively against coalition forces at Al Tanf in at least two instances, in June 2016 and September 2018. The Syrian regime and Iranian-backed proxies successfully cleared terrain just outside the 55-kilometer deconfliction zone isolating forces at Al Tanf. In acts of self-defense, coalition forces struck Iranian-directed forces on at least three occasions and downed an Iranian drone. Would the U.S. be able to control escalation if an American were killed?

A final risk is the biggest of all: the risk of inattention. Deciding not to act is an act itself. Maintaining the same force structure as situations evolve on the ground affects America’s ability to act, operate, and focus in other areas of the world. This is the essence of strategic baggage. There are few reasons to expect action on Syria policy given domestic priorities and higher priority national security issues. Put simply, supporting the mission indefinitely ties up resources that could be used elsewhere.

The United States has a role to play in order to ensure ISIS remains weak, partners are secure, and humanitarian needs are met. A small U.S. footprint in northeast Syria can maintain pressure on ISIS and reassure the Syrian Democratic Forces. However, without clear objectives for U.S. policy within Syria, it is hard to judge the utility of Al Tanf.

America has shouldered strategic baggage in the Middle East over the years. Al Tanf is one of many military commitments in the region. Compared with other engagements, U.S. efforts yield small returns on investment. For example, continuing the presence in northeast Syria for counterterrorism makes sense, but we should be more critical when costs and risks accrue without a clear upside. Given the evident interest in Washington to scale back U.S. ambitions and military presence in the Middle East, the U.S. could use Al Tanf as leverage in negotiations with Russia and Syria.

Perhaps the U.S. could withdraw forces from Al Tanf to get Russia and Syria to engage in the United Nations’ unanimously-approved Security Council Resolution 2254, as well as secure commitments to allow the U.N. to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Rukban and allow them to return home. We should also negotiate safe passage for the partner force to assure others in the region who may consider working with us in the future. Taking these actions could simultaneously relieve a U.S. military burden and reinvigorate hope in a beleaguered peace process.

The views are those of the author and do not reflect the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air University, or the U.S. Government.