What has been described as a “rogue Iranian-led militia” has breached the 55 km deconfliction zone around the U.S Special Operations base at al-Tanf and attacked MAT, an anti-ISIS unit trained by the U.S.

Maghaweir al-Thowra (MAT) is a group that has been trained, equipped and led by American and coalition SOF operators in the tiny base of al-Tanf. MAT reported that an Iranian-led militia entered the 55km deconfliction zone and attacked their forces. They pushed the militia forces back.

MAT forces also claim that this rogue Iranian proxy may have come under attack from Russian airstrikes just outside of the deconfliction zone. Major Johnny Walker a spokesman with Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said that they are monitoring the situation but didn’t comment further as to whether U.S. soldiers took part in the fighting. 

“We are closely monitoring reported hostilities around the 55km de-confliction zone in southern Syria. We are coordinating with our partners, the Maghaweir al-Thowra, and using de-confliction protocols to ensure the safety of our forces,” he said. 

The small base along the Syrian-Iraq border has been a big thorn in the side of the Syrian government, the Russians and most importantly the Iranians. Tensions have been high around this base since 2017 when anti-ISIS groups pushed the Islamic State out of the area and the forces from all of the countries involved began jockeying for primacy in the vacuum left by ISIS. 

The deconfliction zone surrounding al-Tanf base (Image courtesy of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies).

In May of that year, an Iranian-led militia tested the U.S. coalition and sent armored vehicles and bulldozers into the deconfliction zone. U.S. airstrikes destroyed a tank and a bulldozer.

The Russians frequently said in the past that the United States was training terrorists in al-Tanf, something that the state-run Iranian news services picked right up. 

Back in 2018, Russian state-run media outlet Sputnik quoted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem as saying that the U.S. was “gathering the remnants of the Islamic State at this base in order to later send them to wage war on the Syrian army.”

Several members of Congress have questioned President Trump’s administration as to why the U.S. continues to keep al-Tanf open despite the apparent lack of an ISIS threat in the area. Congress has asked the Pentagon for an analysis of the threat Iranian proxy militias pose to the garrison at al-Tanf and to the U.S. partner forces operating in northern Syria.

Why is this base, which has only a small role in the anti-ISIS fight, still a priority and a survivor of two U.S. troop drawdowns? And why are the Iranian-proxies so intent on pushing the U.S. base out?

While the Iranians aim is to force the Americans out of wherever they are entrenched in the Middle East, this base is of strategic importance. The small American outpost in al-Tanf basically blocks the Damascus-Baghdad highway; via that highway, the Iranians are trying to pour missiles along a land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean. Control of the highway would allow them to transport the missiles straight to Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon on the Israeli border — and they can move much greater quantities of arms and missiles through the land route.

Trying to transport the missiles via sea or air is fraught with peril. We’ve seen the Israelis interdict many such shipments and they hit Damascus airport with an airstrike, just a few days ago, after a cargo plane landed. 

Al-Tanf was and remains a potential powder keg, the MAT is also one of the remaining rebel groups, trained by the United States, which doesn’t belong to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Syrians are trying to wrest control of their country back after nearly nine bloody years of civil war. The Russians want their symbolic victory of getting the United States out of another base in Syria. The Iranians need it as part of their weapons flow to their proxies. 

One thing is for certain, this won’t be the last we hear of battles around the tiny Special Operations base.