Why is the US in Jordan and Syria?
Since 7 October there have been near daily attacks on US forces in Syria and Iraq. Most have been quite minor, even symbolic. But on 28 January, three American soldiers were killed in a drone strike on Tower 22, a US base in Jordan, next to the Syrian border.
The US has garrisons and small outposts dotted around Syria and Iraq. Some are there, officially at least, to guard against the remnants of Islamic State. Others are training and support bases for local ‘partner forces’ that serve as de facto US proxies. They both strike at, and are frequent targets of, local militia backed by Iran that want to force the US military out of both countries.
The drone that carried out the attack on Tower 22, which was almost certainly made in Iran, trailed an American drone along a pre-determined flight path back to the base, confusing the air defence systems into thinking it belonged to the US. One of the ways air defence systems avoid shooting down their own planes and drones is by refraining from attacking aircraft travelling on approved routes.
The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella term for several groups backed by Iran, including Kataʾib Hizbullah, claimed responsibility for the attack. On 24 January, US air strikes in al-Qaʾim and Jurf al-Sakhar in Iraq had killed a handful of militiamen belonging to Kataʾib Hizbullah. The US will almost certainly respond to the 28 January attack with more air strikes of its own.
The Jordanian government initially denied that the attack had been on its soil, probably in an attempt to avoid diplomatic awkwardness with either Iraq or Iran. Tower 22 is a support base for a US garrison across the Syrian border at al-Tanf. The smaller facility on the Jordanian side is a good place to park helicopters and even has an AstroTurf football pitch. But al-Tanf is the centre of a 55km-radius semicircle of influence carved out of eastern Syria by US forces after IS was driven from the area. It is also a base of operations for an American proxy force usually referred to as Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra (the Revolutionary Commando Army). Syrian proxies live and train alongside US soldiers (at the moment, troops from the 10th Mountain Division).
Washington gave up on overthrowing Bashar al-Assad almost a decade ago, but set up bases in Syria for fighting Islamic State. After IS was defeated, US forces stayed on. As well as at al-Tanf, there are several hundred US troops in the predominantly Kurdish controlled north-east, where the Syrian Democratic Forces still hold around ten thousand IS adherents in detention camps.
Like other US garrisons, the Tanf base is nominally there to ward off a return of IS. But it is also located along the main Baghdad to Damascus highway. Iraqi militias supported by Iran control parts of the highway further east. General Joseph Votel, the then head of US Central Command, said in 2018 that the US position at al-Tanf had ‘an indirect effect on some malign activities that Iran and their various proxies and surrogates would like to pursue down here’.
But that’s not all that al-Tanf is for. Israeli planes often fly over it as a waypoint when conducting air strikes in Syria, to help them avoid Syrian air defences. In 2019, when Donald Trump wanted to withdraw American forces from Syria, Benjamin Netanyahu requested that the US retain its presence at al-Tanf.
In 2021, when Joe Biden ordered a review of America’s Syria policy, the decision was taken to maintain al-Tanf and the other outposts. Rural fort soldiering is a classic imperial mode, so it isn’t unusual that the US does it in the Middle East, except that so many of the outposts in Syria and Iraq have become liabilities.
At the moment their main purpose seems to be to soak up attacks motivated by anger with US support for Israel, and the US presence in general. Attacks on American forces in Syria and Iraq are often described as evidence of Iranian master puppetry, but this ignores that Iraq and Syria have their own political dynamics. Iran is certainly pleased by these attacks but it’s unlikely to be directing them all.
America’s desert outposts in the Levant look like anachronisms with no clear purpose, and they are clearly attractive targets. So why haven’t they been shut down? Perhaps because occasionally getting shot at is judged a price worth paying to show that American power stretches even into the middle of the Syrian desert.
It’s standard practice either to treat American imperial architecture as somehow natural, and so in need of no coherent justification, or else to ignore its existence. That gets harder when American troops are being killed. But in the Middle East as a whole the rate of attrition of US soldiers has been very low. Perhaps facilitating Israel and frustrating Iran is thought to be worth a few lives.